De Vaul fights court order on homeless

Rancher Dan De Vaul has challenged a judge’s order that he remove homeless people from his ranch just west of San Luis Obispo.

De Vaul, whose facilities helping the homeless off Los Osos Valley Road have been the center of his high-profile battle with the county, charges that Judge Charles S. Crandall made numerous errors of fact in his July 2 ruling and questions the research and assumptions that lay behind Crandall’s decision.

In a motion asking Crandall to reconsider, De Vaul’s attorney, John Belsher, said the earlier ruling contained "inconsistencies” and “erroneous findings,” and that “new or different facts” have come to light.Crandall’s ruling had adjudicated a case the county brought against De Vaul over allegedly unsafe conditions his residents faced at the ranch. De Vaul took issue with the court at the same time he stepped up his fight on another front: public perception, using the media.

De Vaul’s press liaison, Becky Jorgeson, sent out a letter earlier this week to local media, inviting them to visit De Vaul’s ranch and “do a story on good, positive things happening here at Sunny Acres,” a clean and sober living facility.

Jorgeson said De Vaul and his backers were growing crops and “were excited to say that we’ll be breaking ground on an 8,000-square-foot home for our residents in the near future — another positive thing happening out here!”

County planners, however, were less sanguine about the new structure. They said that while De Vaul can submit plans, he still will have to deal with the health and safety code violations that landed him in Crandall’s court and triggered nuisance abatement proceedings from the county.

“Code violations are an issue,” county planner John Busselle said. He added that De Vaul has asked for a waiver of the $17,500 in fees he would have to pay to move forward.

In his July 2 ruling, Crandall accused De Vaul of “demonstrable intransigence,” ordered the rancher to clear homeless from dangerous structures on his property, and said he could no longer collect rent from them.

Belsher challenged the framework and definitions on which Crandall based his reasoning, arguing that “this is not a landlord/tenant situation.”

De Vaul, Belsher wrote, does not collect $300 rent from the homeless who participate in his Sunny Acres clean and sober program. Rather, the money is “a program fee that includes meals, transportation, substance abuse support, recreation, vocational activities and shelter.”

De Vaul “operate(s) a nonprofit organization, not a business,” and “there is no evidence Mr. De Vaul receives any of the program fees collected.”

Closing down Sunny Acres, Belsher wrote, “directly interferes” with a nonprofit organization and shuts it down “under the guise of a ‘housing order’ by labeling program fees as ‘rent.’ ”

Among other points Belsher made:

• While Crandall said he was making his decision to protect the health and safety of the homeless on De Vaul’s property, 20 of those people submitted declarations on De Vaul’s behalf, and “the court cites no evidence that these program participants are being taken advantage of.”

• Crandall alluded to the health and safety of neighbors brought about by current conditions and tenants at the ranch. In fact, Belsher wrote, evicting residents would cause harm to others’ welfare “by placing these people on the street and in the creeks, taxing hospitals, possibly causing communicable diseases, and tying up police and paramedic resources.”

• Crandall’s order to remove structures included some that were not there when the county issued its abatement notice.

De Vaul and the county have been battling for years over alleged code violations at his 72-acre ranch at 10660 Los Osos Valley Road. The issue has been complicated because he also runs the clean and sober living facility there, providing help and shelter to people in distress.

The lines between the program and the ranch and its code problems have become blurred over time, leading to civil actions and court proceedings.

De Vaul’s contrarian personality also has become a factor, and many people view his struggles as a battle between an overreaching county bureaucracy and a crusty rancher just trying to do the right thing, albeit breaking the rules as he does so. Others simply see De Vaul as a scofflaw.