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Top 10 stories of 2009: Dan De Vaul still housing homeless after arrest

jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Contrarian rancher Dan De Vaul entered 2009 grappling with the county government and ended it the same way.

In between, he went to court, was convicted of two misdemeanor code violations, spent a night in jail, was bailed out by one of his jurors, and has appealed his conviction.

The year ahead promises more of the same wrangling, only this time De Vaul, who has captured local headlines, may take his story national. He says he is fielding offers from both Larry King Live and Good Morning America, and has been interviewed by The New York Times.

The De Vaul saga may be new for those outlets, but it has been playing out in San Luis Obispo County for years.

De Vaul, 66, owns 72 acres of farmland on Los Osos Valley Road, just west of the San Luis Obispo city limits.

It has become arguably the most controversial piece of land in the county since the Dalidio Ranch, because of the way De Vaul uses it.

He raises cattle. He grows crops. He has a farm stand.

He also has been storing old vehicles on a portion of the ranch.

And, he has been letting the homeless live illegally in abandoned trailers and an illegal stucco barn, charging rent of as much as $300 a month or having the tenants work on the ranch in exchange for lodging.

Finally, he runs Sunny Acres, a “clean and sober” living facility, on the western side of his property.

These polyglot activities get mixed up in the public mind, with the result that many in the community want to help him in his more humane endeavors while others are offended by the way the land looks.

To underscore this, many have come to help him clean up the ranch. Others, led by neighbors on Diablo Drive, say the homeless situation needs solving but meanwhile the ranch is a blight and must be restored to nature.

In 2009, the county, which would be liable should someone get hurt at the stucco barn or elsewhere on the property, hauled De Vaul into court on nine misdemeanor criminal code violation charges.

In September, a jury convicted De Vaul of two misdemeanor counts of violating state and county codes, acquitted him on two others and failed to reach a decision on five of the nine charges. Judge John Trice declared a mistrial on the latter five charges, and the district attorney later dropped them.

The jury found De Vaul guilty of violating state fire codes and creating a safety hazard by converting an agricultural barn into a de facto barracks.

Jurors also agreed that he illegally stored mobile homes and vehicles.

They acquitted him on charges of illegally stockpiling grading materials and violating a stop-work order.

De Vaul has appealed the misdemeanor convictions, and the county continues to order him to clean them up.

What does 2010 portend, apart from the prospect that De Vaul may go national? Most likely, more of the same back and forth with county code enforcement.

Old vehicles still dot the property, and De Vaul is still providing non-code housing for the homeless. Code enforcement officers are still monitoring him.

“There are serious issues of health and safety,” County Supervisor Bruce Gibson said. He said the county will do what it must to keep people safe.

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