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The county and Dan DeVaul 

If Sunny Acres is so bad, why does the county keep sending people there?

It’s dusk, a few days before Thanksgiving at the Sunny Acres sober living facility, and founder Dan DeVaul leads the way to his barn, planting his good foot and dragging his other. It makes a sound like: “CLUMP, zzzz, CLUMP, zzzz, CLUMP, zzzz.”

The inside edge of DeVaul’s right boot is worn nearly clear through as a result of his gait. While the distance is no more than 30 yards, along the way DeVaul’s able to point out maybe a half dozen items he’s in trouble for with the county.

CLUMP, zzzz, CLUMP, zzzz.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • photo by STEVE E. MILLER

  Over here are the winery half-barrels that he’s sold for years to benefit Sunny Acres; these days they’re planted with home-grown nursery items, but the county says he can’t sell them without a permit, which he doesn’t have. Over there is the fruit stand; it’s independently operated, but the county doesn’t like the look of the electrical conduit DeVaul’s run to it. Turn the corner, and there are a couple of dozen parked vehicles, ranging from pickups to classics. There are a lot fewer than there were a few months ago, but still more than code officials will allow.

The vehicles have been a major concern to the county. Code officials say he can have two stored cars. By “stored” the county means parked for more than 48 hours.

Two stored vehicles. On 72 acres. It says so right in the Nuisance Abatement Order that was issued by the Board of Supervisors on July 22. “By September 30, 2008, at 5 p.m., do the following: … Remove all but two stored passenger vehicles from the property and screen stored vehicles from the road.” Except then it goes on, to add “Staff will make the final determination on the number and types of vehicles reasonably necessary for ranch use at the subject property.”

So how many vehicles is he really allowed? DeVaul says he has no clue.  Just, apparently, not as many as he has. 

CLUMP, zzzz, CLUMP, zzzz.

He turns the corner and motions to take a peek into the barn, proudly pointing. There sits a sweet, shiny blue hot rod, crafted out of the body of Ford Model T.

Another car! 

Grinning, DeVaul explains that he hadn’t been planning to buy a hot rod when he went on a recent trip, yet he spotted it and found that the price was such that he couldn’t pass it up. Dan DeVaul likes rescuing old cars nearly as much, it seems, as he does people.

DeVaul’s trouble’s with the county have ebbed and flowed over the past five years. At one point several years ago, people were removed from the ranch, but then things seemed to settle down as DeVaul and code officials reached an agreement. However, prospects now seem as dim as ever, and things seem to be coming to a head for DeVaul, his ranch, and the two dozen people who stay there.

 DeVaul could be buried with fines and serve time in the county jail. He’s facing the prospect that the county will hire somebody to tear down own of his barnshe illegally tried to convert it into a dormitory, code officials sayhaul away all of his commercial vehicles, cars, trucks and several mobile homes, and then attach the bill to his taxes, possibly endangering his ownership of the ranch. 

What’s more, the county District Attorney is prosecuting him criminally for most of the same code issues. Meanwhile, DeVaul is taking the county to court to appeal tens of thousands of dollars in fines the county imposed on him starting a year ago, for selling Christmas trees from his roadside stand. 

The county code officials stress that what they’re most concerned about regarding the ranch is that the people there, DeVaul included, stay healthy and safe. As County Supervisor Bruce Gibsonthe ranch is in his district and he’s taken a hands-on approach to the issues thereputs things: “If he’s putting them up in, according to our codes, unsafe situations, what happens if someone dies in a fire, or some structural collapse? There are a number of negative things that could happen.”

It’s a reasonable question. But if the county thinks the place is so bad, why does the county keep sending folks there?

 

A mistake?

In the past roughly two years, during visits to the ranch by New Times several Sunny Acres residents who were there while serving county-ordered probation said  their probation workers essentially dropped them off. 

This article mentions no names because the last time New Times did quote someone there who was on probation, the paper was informed that the next day the Probation Department yanked the guy out and sent him elsewhere, complicating his life.

In more recent months, county officials have stressed that they no longer request spots for people at the ranch. 

Gibson said it’s now county policy, agreed to by the Probation Department, the courts, and the Sheriff’s Department, not to drop folks off at DeVaul’s until all code issues are addressed.

Yet Gibson acknowledged that, as recently as a few weeks ago, a probation officer sought out DeVaul to see if he would take in someone who was having trouble finding a place to stay.

That incident, Gibson said, was a mistake. 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • photo by STEVE E. MILLER

“This was one incident, and basically we look at it as an anomaly,” Gibson said. 

Jim Salio, assistant chief probation officer, said officers are told to stay “neutral,” regarding whether probationers stay at the ranch.

“Basically, we’ve kind of told our officers we’re not to make recommendations or tell people to go live on DeVaul’s ranch. However, if a person on probation chooses to do so on their own accord, we do not prevent them.”

When Salio was asked if some officers might still be seeking out spots at DeVaul’s he said, “It’s possible,” adding, “it probably was more so in the past.”

Even if the county’s formal policy toward DeVaul is one of neutrality, however, it seems clear that Sunny Acres serves an unmet need in the countyparticularly in regards to space for men in recovery.

The county, for example, controls only 16 beds dedicated to residential addiction recovery. All but four of those are reserved for women and their children. The remaining four are in a co-ed duplex controlled by the Housing Authority. Another five-bed women-only facility is expected to open in January.

There are also several other private residential treatment centers, and at least two other private sober living centers. Again, they are primarily for women, and there are waiting lists for all of them, according to Star Graber, Division Manager of Drug and Alcohol Services for the county. 

For now, the county doesn’t refer people to Sunny Acres, she said, in part because of the code concerns.

Until recently, Sheriff’s Department officials spoke publicly in support of DeVaul, noting that, when it comes to such folks as sexual offenders, who are legally required to be tracked under California’s Megan’s Law, they’d much rather the people stay somewhere they’re being watched. 

In fact, the county has a well-documented dearth of services or housing for people who are addicted or mentally ill. DeVaul brings this fact up frequently in his defense.

Sunny Acres promotes itself as a not-for-profit, low-cost “clean and sober living” facility that offers a wide range of work and training. In 2007, for example, the fees were $300 a month, per person, with a few additional fees if residents wanted cable television or Internet access.

The facility emphasizes taking people from all economic levels and emphasizes personal responsibility more than following rigid treatment guidelines. This approach has opened the center for criticism, but residents are required to attend two Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings per week, held on the property.

The nonprofit’s annual reports make clear that, while it runs for extended periods financially independent, it also looks to DeVaul to contribute his own money whenever funds run short. It’s 2007 report, for example, said DeVaul hadn’t been paid any rent and occasionally had to kick in to fill gaps.

Here’s from the 2007 report: “While county agencies all work with big budges and salaries, we are totally self-supporting here … [We] work each day to find remedies for this depressing reality: we cannot continue to serve just the top 3 percent of that population when there are so many who live in cardboard boxes, if that. Any kind of shelter is better than none at all.”  

County code officials may deserve some sympathy. Imagine their life: They get complaints, they investigate and, sure enough, they find code violations. Then they go in to do something about it and Dan DeVaul rounds up sympathetic media attention because he is, after all, actually helping many folks the county doesn’t seem well equipped to deal with. Makes them look like the bad guys. 

DeVaul, however, see things this way: “They are stopping me from providing legal housing for people who are addicted and homeless. That’s what is happening. Plain, flat, sweet and simple.”

 

Is this the end?

The county District Attorney’s office is prosecuting DeVaul criminally, alleging he’s so flagrantly violated codes that it amounts to criminal behavior. 

The process hasn’t moved swiftly. DeVaul was charged in June. Two judges assigned to handle the case bowed out, saying they had various conflicts. Now the case is set to go to court Jan. 20 before Judge John Trice.

DeVaul’s defense, based on pre-trial motions, will be built in part on a “defense of necessity.” In short, a motion by attorney Jeffrey Stulberg argues, basic human decency and DeVaul’s religious convictions offered him no alternatives but to house and feed the homeless, regardless of what the county’s codebooks say. 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • photo by STEVE E. MILLER

The idea is, just like it would be a defense to a speeding ticket if a man were taking his wife to the hospital to deliver a baby, it’s legal to house people in situations that may violate codes if the alternativessuch as them being homelesswould endanger their health. 

In legal terms, the argument says that if the law violation was “to prevent a significant evil … with no adequate alternative,” it is a defense. 

According to DeVaul’s legal filings, the homeless, mentally ill, and addicted people who stay at his ranch have no reasonable alternative.

If that strategy doesn’t work, court motions suggest DeVaul’s attorney will argue DeVaul has been selectively prosecuted, noting, for example, that many other county properties have debris and parked vehicles in apparent violation of county code, whose owners have not been similarly prosecuted. 

They’ve added many of the county’s top code officials, including Senior County Code Officer Art Trinidade, to the list of witnesses they hope to call to answer that accusation.

In an answering motion, D.A. Gerald Shea argues that it was DeVaul who was putting people in danger, by violating fire and health codes. He also argues that only people who have something to say about the specific conditions of DeVaul’s property should be allowed to be called. 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • photo by STEVE E. MILLER

The county seems especially opposed to permitting Sunny Acres residents to testify, arguing in court documents, “testimony about the life-circumstances of people living on the property and how they came to be there are irrelevant to the allegations in the complaint.”

The court trial doesn’t seem to have DeVaul particularly worried. He’s not bothered by the idea that he could go to jail, but he is upset that the efforts he’s made since first running afoul of code officialsin the most recent round, anywayhaven’t been good enough for them. 

In a June 22 order, the Board of Supervisors gave him a rigid set of deadlines to meet to get rid of all the extra passenger vehicles, commercial vehicles, debris, unpermitted mobile homes and to get a converted stucco barn up to code. He met some of the deadlines, but most he didn’t.

The next step, likely in January, officials say, is for them to offer bids to do all the jobs, including potentially razing the old barn, and then adding the bill to DeVaul’s taxes. 

So, DeVaul is facing a multi-pronged set of challenges. Or, as he puts it, “I’m really pissed! For seven years the bastards have been using this code enforcement business … strictly as a way to throttle me for providing legal housing to underprivileged people. End of story.”

End of story.

 

Selected quotes from Dan DeVaul

“They are stopping me from providing legal housing for people who are addicted and homeless. That’s what is happening. Plain, flat, sweet and simple.”

“It’s as plain as a goat’s ass going uphill.”

“Get me a building permit and let me build some goddamn hosing for these people!”

“They’ve got their boot on my neck.”

“You want me to feed the people outside and cook in the rain?”


Managing Editor Patrick Howe can be reached at phowe@newtimesslo.com

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