Excoriating rancher Dan De Vaul for “demonstrable intransigence” and harming the people he says he wants to help, a Superior Court judge on Friday ordered De Vaul to clear the homeless from dangerous structures on his property and stop collecting rent from them.
“It is an oversimplification to say that any housing is better than no housing,” Judge Charles S. Crandall wrote in a ruling put on the court website Friday afternoon.
The statement thrusts at the core of De Vaul’s argument and his considerable public support: that he is providing shelter to people in a county that on any given night has close to 4,000 homeless people.
While agreeing that there is a real need for shelter, Crandall wrote that it “must meet certain minimum health and safety criteria.”
To argue otherwise, he wrote, would be to “condone the maintenance of slum housing, tenements, or other human habitations irrespective of the risks they pose to the residents and the community.”
The ruling culminated a case the county had brought against De Vaul over allegedly unsafe conditions his tenants faced at the ranch.
A frustrated De Vaul said Crandall gave the county everything it asked for, and his decision betrayed a lack of understanding of the facts on the ground and the people who live at the ranch. “This just makes me sick,” he told The Tribune. “We’re supposed to be celebrating the Fourth of July — that we have rights.”
De Vaul’s attorney, John Belsher, said the judge’s ruling is based on an assumption that all housing must meet all codes. He said it sends the message “beware when the power of government comes down on a property owner.”
“There probably isn’t a house in the county that doesn’t have some code violation,” he said.De Vaul’s ranch is at 10660 Los Osos Valley Road, just west of the San Luis Obispo city limits.
The rancher operates Sunny Acres, a nonprofit, clean-and-sober-living program, which now houses about 30 residents — 10 of whom live in a legal farmhouse.
Some of De Vaul’s tenants seek treatment for alcohol and substance abuse. Others are homeless. However, he houses some of them elsewhere on the property, including in sheds. He provided lodging for some homeless in trailers and a converted barn — known as “the stucco barn” — that the county condemned and boarded up.
Those structures are unsafe and pose a threat of fire, and the drinking water is contaminated, Crandall wrote.
Crandall’s ruling requires De Vaul to clear out mobile homes, sheds, the dairy barn, the stucco barn, RVs, and tents by Aug. 20. It does not apply to the legal farmhouse or the apartment on the property where he lives.
He also ordered De Vaul to restore the stucco barn and the dairy barn to agricultural status or demolish them by Oct. 1, use sheds only for storage and remove all but 10 stored RVs by Oct. 1.Crandall ruled De Vaul must pay to relocate the people being forced from the ranch.
De Vaul and the county have been at loggerheads for years. He has said he is providing a place to stay for people who otherwise would have to sleep outdoors. The county has called De Vaul a scofflaw who routinely thumbs his nose at county codes and regulations that other people must obey.
In the negotiations leading up to the current court action, each side has accused the other of not cooperating.
Belsher said he believes the county is trying to shut down the Sunny Acres clean-and-sober operation. De Vaul said he will seek a permit to build a 14-bedroom addition for that program.