Differing views of a rehab center
Dan de Vaul bumps along a dirt road in a beat-up Jeep on his 72-acre ranch just west of the city limits and pulls to a halt in front of two newly built garden sheds.
“This is our latest illegal adventure,” the rancher says, gesturing at the 10-foot-by-12-foot windowless wooden sheds. They won’t be filled with farming tools, he announces, but with clients of his sober-living program.
“Those trailers are very illegal too,” De Vaul says, pointing to three ramshackle RVs planted in the ground nearby, electrical cords snaking out of them. Homeless addicts and drunks live in them.
This is Sunny Acres, a self-styled rehab compound the 65-year-old De Vaul operates on his ranch a couple of miles west of the famed Madonna Inn. Depending on who’s talking, it’s either a much-needed haven for homeless people battling addictions or De Vaul’s way of thumbing his nose at society and its laws.
For eight years, De Vaul has battled neighbors and San Luis Obispo County code enforcement officers as he’s converted his land from cattle range to a thriving hub of mostly illegal money-making ventures. He sells scrap metal from heaps, salvages parts from dozens of rusty vehicles and hawks produce and nursery stock from a stand near the ranch’s entry on busy Los Osos Valley Road.
But Sunny Acres, his “Mad Max"-style encampment, which also houses clients in tents and the 1908 ranch house, is perhaps his biggest money-maker. It has also drawn the most attention from neighbors and authorities. They call it an eyesore and a threat to the health and safety of the 30 or so people it’s supposed to help. It’s also illegal, according to county officials, who say De Vaul has no authority to run a rehab center.
A frequent target
De Vaul has been the target of numerous orders to shut down the center and clean up his property. But as soon as the authorities go away, he lets the sober-living clients back in.
When the county shut down a barn that was illegally converted into a three-story dormitory, De Vaul continued to house clients in it until county workers nailed the doors shut.
“Government should find a way to take care of them, if they don’t want to put up with what I’m providing,” he said.
Code enforcement workers last year began removing more than 100 vehicles unlawfully stored on his land, including six big rigs, six freight trailers, two dump trucks, four boom trucks and a drilling rig. They plan to continue to do so at De Vaul’s expense. He’s also got illicit stockpiles of tires and concrete rubble.
Last year, the district attorney’s office filed nine criminal misdemeanor counts against him. The case is set for trial this summer. De Vaul, who pleaded not guilty, could face more than four years in jail.
“They’re trumped-up charges,” he said.
On a recent day, looking like many a prosperous Central Coast rancher in weathered jeans, boots, suspenders and a big western hat, he appeared defiant and nearly taunted officials to come get him.
“Everyone has all these actions against me,” he said calmly, relaxing in what one disgruntled neighbor calls his “barndominium,” a rustic, open-beamed flat on the second story of a barn. “But no one wants to be the one that comes up and plunges the sword.”
Bruce Gibson, the county supervisor whose district includes De Vaul’s property, likens the 6-foot De Vaul to a character from the Old West.
“He doesn’t want help from the outside, and he doesn’t want to be told what to do,” Gibson said. “Problem is, he’s bumping up against the 21st century.”
Gibson admits a grudging admiration for De Vaul’s ability to connect with the down-and-out. He said some in San Luis Obispo admire his individualism and defiance, but others think he’s a menace.
Taking on ‘St. Dan’
Christine Mulholland, for one, isn’t charmed.
She’s positioned a telescope in her living room so she can keep track of what he’s up to. A former San Luis Obispo councilwoman, Mulholland is De Vaul’s No. 1 critic and has filed a 10-inch stack of paperwork that documents every alleged code violation since 2000.
When she moved into the quiet tract two decades ago, the picture windows in her living room looked over a pastoral scene: black cows grazing on green fields. Now it resembles a junkyard, with rusting automobiles and piles of scrap metal, the Sunny Acres encampment off in the distance.
It infuriates her when people defend De Vaul for taking in homeless people. “There’s a lot of people who think he’s St. Dan,” said Mulholland, a no-frills woman who stands 6 feet 2 and has decorated her airy home with frog collectibles. “But he’s taking money from people to house them in substandard housing.”
They are enemies with similar backgrounds, both from pioneering California families.
Mulholland’s great-grandfather was William Mulholland, the Los Angeles water czar who built the aqueduct from the Owens Valley to the city. She admires enterprise but says there’s a right way to do it.
“With him, it’s just an in-your-face refusal to comply,” she said.
De Vaul’s ancestors have ranched in the area since the late 1800s, he said. He was raised in the six-bedroom Victorian that is now home to at least a dozen clients.
De Vaul kicked around San Luis Obispo for a bit after high school but decided he’d had enough of small-town culture. In his 20s he took off for Tempe, Ariz., where he worked as a machinist and heavy-equipment salesman.
He was married but living “a wild life burning the candle at both ends.” At 29, he rolled a dune buggy, breaking his neck and partly paralyzing his right leg. He became addicted to painkillers, and his life slowly unraveled, De Vaul said.
At around 40, he started 12-step counseling sessions that helped him decide to become sober, he said. For a few years he developed Section 8 housing in the Phoenix area; when the economy soured, he decided to go home. Twice divorced with four sons, he threw himself back into ranching, eventually buying the ranch he grew up on.
De Vaul said his past has made him sympathetic to the addicts and drunks who camp along the creeks in San Luis Obispo. That’s why he decided to start his sober-living program in 2002, he said.
“I feel more like these people than those there,” he said, pointing to new million-dollar homes on a hillside across the highway from his ranch.
He charges each client about $300 a month, providing meals and an opportunity to learn skills working at various jobs on the ranch. Twelve-step meetings are offered twice a week. Residents are encouraged to stay as long as they need to get back on their feet.
On a recent day, two men sweated under the sun, demolishing an old trailer truck with a pick and a sledgehammer. Other men prepped fields for tomatoes and squash and fixed farm equipment. In an old dairy barn, Alex Jara, 40, prepared grilled bologna sandwiches for the clients. A methamphetamine addict, he’s been at Sunny Acres for a year and a half. “Without him, I wouldn’t have my sobriety,” he said.
Down a dusty road, Darcene Clayton, 55, an “old addict and alcoholic,” said she’s found her niche. She manages residents living in the house, which has cracks in the plaster and smells faintly of urine.
“I’ve found a place where my crazy works for me,” said the fast-talking Clayton.
County officials say they have offered to help De Vaul bring his structures up to code and obtain the proper permits.
De Vaul turned them down.
“I’m not interested in running a Betty Ford,” he said in reference to the celebrity-frequented rehabilitation center in Rancho Mirage. “I’m interested in having a place where the lowest of the low can go. If I came up to code, I’d have to charge $900 a month.”
During a tour of his property, De Vaul entered the barn-dormitory, walking past a posted no-entry sign without hesitation. Its rooms are now used for storage of old bunk beds, dusty furniture and fresh lumber.
The lumber is there to build more sheds if the county decides to demolish De Vaul’s barn, shut down the house or haul off the old campers.
“You’re allowed to build 10-by-12 garden sheds without permits,” he said with a smile. “It will take them a while to catch up to us on that.”