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Merry Christmas, Dan De Vaul!

The county demands $500 per day for a Christmas tree fundraiser and begins billing by the hour

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In the latest kerfuffle between rancher Dan De Vaul and county bureaucrats, SLO County code enforcers have begun fining De Vaul $500 per day for selling Christmas trees to benefit Sunny Acres, the not-for-profit clean-and-sober living facility he founded on his 72-acre ranch. County officials say that he doesn't have the proper permits because the tree sale constitutes operation of a roadside stand.

Plus, they've told him in a separate letter that they're billing him for every hour they have to spend dealing with those and related code issues from now on. So far, that bill has reached $990, and the rate is $99 per hour.

As of press time, De Vaul had refused to close the stand and was attempting to sell his remaining trees from his ranch on Los Osos Valley Road. He said he found bitter irony in the fact that the fines came in the same week county supervisors had named as homeless prevention week. Meanwhile fines for the trees were mounting, totaling more than $6,000--assuming the county began its tabulations on the date of its Nov. 30 notice.

In the letter to De Vaul, Senior Investigator Marie Cowan said that in order to stop the fines, De Vaul would not only have to get a permit for the sale of the trees but also get a grading permit, apparently to address construction materials that have been stored on the land.

In addition to the Christmas trees, the entrance to the ranch--just outside SLO City limits--is marked by stacks of wine casks, collections of farm equipment, and an assortment of nursery-style container plants. Most of it is the sort of detritus common to agricultural lands, but it has all come under a magnifying glass in recent years as development has come to surround the property.

County code enforcers have been at odds with De Vaul over issues that range from dirt he's added to the ranch--an agricultural soil enhancement project, he insists, though for a time he allowed dirt-bike riders to ride there--to the way he's housed the 30 or so homeless people and recovering addicts and alcoholics who live at Sunny Acres.

"All he needs to do is just get it cleaned up so everybody driving by doesn't have to see all that stuff," Cowan said in an interview. "The county has tried really hard to help him live out his dream. He's really not working with us so well, though, and there's only so much we can do."

She said the fines followed warnings in August that the stand wasn't legal. Once he expanded it by selling trees, Cowan said, the county decided the violation was "willful" and started the fines.

De Vaul is equally frustrated, saying of the latest order threatening to bill him for county time: "All we can do is go ahead and keep doing what we think is right."

Things came to a head in 2005, when the county moved to evict Sunny Acres residents from the ranch, but the operation has since continued on a smaller scale.

De Vaul has made efforts to respond to county demands, at times planting roses and grasses and, more recently, moving the dozens of vehicles--ranging from priceless classics to burned-out junkers--that had dotted his land, into a central location. Yet he's remained stubbornly unyielding to other county demands.

De Vaul, for example, is convinced that the latest volley by the county is an act of retaliation for his publicly embarrassing officials in August by having residents sleep out of doors, and later in tents, after code enforcers told him the residents could no longer spend their nights in a converted barn. De Vaul said he couldn't afford the permitting process--he estimated it would cost $400,000, though code enforcers scoffed at the figure--to make the barn habitable. For now, residents sleep in a six-bedroom farm house on the ranch.

"I think all they're doing is looking for a chance to bust my balls because of what I did with the beds," he said.

Investigator Cowan denied any link between the fines and the bed incident.

De Vaul said his family has been selling trees on the ranch for more than 15 years. The last time county officials objected, he said, a judge threw the matter out of court.

Ultimately, said Judie Najarian, the chairwoman of the Sunny Acres board, the ranch might be best served by having the city of San Luis Obispo annex the land. De Vaul hopes to develop the property with a mix of affordable and high-end houses that would generate money to permanently fund the facility, which emphasizes individual responsibility in its recovery efforts.

On a recent day so windy that the boards in the barn below De Vaul's house whistled and banged, Jess Macias continued to man the tree stand despite the bureaucrats' orders. A five-year Sunny Acres resident, Macias said he's happy to help.

"I was looking at five years in prison if I didn't get my act together," he said of the circumstances that brought him to the ranch. "Dan gave me my life back. I owe him big time."

In its notice, the county informed De Vaul that he can appeal the fine--but only if he pays it first.

Managing Editor Patrick Howe can be reached at phowe@newtimesslo.com.

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