Dan De Vaul on Sunny Acres: 'This is what makes me feel good'

acornejo@thetribunenews.comMay 3, 2013 

A sullied cowboy hat, suspenders and work boots are his attire, but Dan De Vaul, 69, is no ordinary rancher.

Cantankerous and determined, he’s got distaste for authority, a penchant for telling it like it is and a stubborn streak that finally paid off.

A decade-long clash between De Vaul and the county is over after a settlement was reached. He can now build the Sunny Acres sober-living facility on his 72-acre ranch on Los Osos Valley Road on the outskirts of San Luis Obispo.

His long struggle included jail time and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and fines. He was also forced to turn away some of the homeless people he was fighting to help.

Now, De Vaul says he is looking forward. In a year’s time he would like to have built an 8,000-square foot U-shaped building that will shelter up to 50 homeless people as well as those battling addiction and mental health issues.

De Vaul was vague when asked how much the effort will cost or how much money he will need to raise.

But he is resolute in his belief that it is needed, and he is determined to make it happen.

The program will cater to people who are not eligible or have not been able to find help in other available county programs.

“There are so many people who don’t have housing,” said David Levine, who sits on the seven-member board of directors for Sunny Acres. “We are dealing with just who we wanted to — the bottom tier.”

Levine said Sunny Acres is not in competition with other programs in the county but merely working in conjunction to help as many people as possible.

The ranch has become synonymous in the last decade of a litigious battle between De Vaul and the county over code and land-use violations.

At one time, clients were found living in sheds, tents and a dairy barn. At the program’s height, 70 people lived there. Now, only 15 clients live in an old Victorian home that De Vaul grew up in. Some of those people have been there for a decade, others just hours. De Vaul chooses to live in a converted barn on the property.

“What the program has done for me is given me a new lease on life,” said Jess Macias, 49, who has lived at Sunny Acres for 10 years and now helps manage the program. “It has given me hope, and that is what we want to help people with; there is hope in life, even with addiction.”

In 2005 the majority of clients of the then-Sunny Acres recovery center were evicted after the county closed the facility because De Vaul failed to fix numerous code and land-use violations.

San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Charles Crandall declared the ranch a public nuisance in July 2010.

A group of Cal Poly students helped fix a slew of issues including upgrading electrical and plumbing systems, hauling away 122 tons of scrap and replacing an illegal gas line to the house with a propane tank. A court-appointed receivership controlled the property until earlier this month.

Macias said the new facility will offer not only help but hope to more people.

Clients will work on the ranch, farm and sell produce and be connected with counseling, mental health services and peer guidance.

“The feeling of having a home and not worrying about where you will be living and sleeping gives you the ability to grow and succeed,” Macias said. “With hope you can do anything. When there is no hope, everything else gets buried with it.”

De Vaul said he’s fought for the program over the years because he wants to help people.

“Why do I stay in this?” said De Vaul. “I had my bouts with drugs and alcohol. This is what makes me feel good. We are creating something … fabricating a program … that is going to help people.”

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Stay updated by following @a_cornejo on Twitter.

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