Dan DeVaul's motorized wheelchair announced his arrival before he zoomed out of the barn at Sunny Acres. When the cherry-red machine's steady hum stopped, DeVaul started talking.
- Photo By Jayson Mellom
- UNENVIABLE WORK Dan DeVaul thinks San Luis Obispo County is hesitant to shutter Sunny Acres because it accepts and houses stigmatized people like registered sex offenders, among others.
"Like John Wayne said: 'Mis raices estan aqui.' It means my roots are buried here," DeVaul said.
With his outback hat shading his eyes from the sun, the 78-year-old surveyed his portion of the Sunny Acres ranch. His partner, Judie Najarian, sat beside him that Wednesday in late March. Together, they faced the property that has been a battleground between DeVaul and San Luis Obispo County for years.
His own recovery process—after a vehicle accident left him temporarily disabled at 30 and subsequently addicted to prescription drugs and alcohol—inspired DeVaul in 2002 to convert his family's Los Osos Valley Road property into a facility to help others facing substance abuse.
The nonprofit recovery program he started, Sunny Acres, has been raising eyebrows ever since. By 2012, the county had slapped DeVaul with a nuisance abatement lawsuit for code violations at Sunny Acres that ranged from hoarding to people living in unpermitted structures. The court appointed a third-party health and safety receiver to fix these issues, and DeVaul still remembers the financial sting.
"He can do whatever he wants, and when he gets through spending money, he comes to you and says, 'Pay this and I'll give you your ranch back.' I had to pay him $110,000," he said.
Now, it's happening again.
In July 2021, the county issued another set of notices of violation. This time for unpermitted septic and power systems, having people live in RVs on the property, and the accumulation of close to 150,000 cubic yards of fill material on the ranch's floodplain over 20 years.
But DeVaul's squabbles aren't just with the county.
Residents and program leaders from within the Sunny Acres nonprofit are worried his cantankerous interactions with the county will jeopardize the future of the people recovering on-site. When the county filed the most recent violation notices, members of the nonprofit agreed to work with the county to fix some of the issues. And they have one overarching goal: to retain Sunny Acres as a sober-living facility and nonprofit without DeVaul.
Sunny Acres Program Director Johnny Rodriguez has always chosen "the harder route."
After dabbling in methamphetamines and marijuana, and stints in state prisons in Wasco and Susanville, his life took a turn for the worse when his brother fatally overdosed on psychiatric medications and alcohol. Rodriguez's alcoholism crescendoed. He was drinking a gallon of vodka a day.
- Photo By Jayson Mellom
- IN CONFLICT Sunny Acres residents and advocates David Dieter (left) and Joseph Kurtzman would like the longtime SLO County nonprofit to separate from its founder.
"My sister found me in a motel room and gave me an option: Pick one of these two places and get your stuff together, or the family's done with you," the Santa Maria native said. "That day in the motel, a decision had to be made on my part. I looked at myself in the mirror and was very honest with myself. Either you're gonna continue using and die, or go to prison for life, or you go do something different and give it a shot. What do you have to lose?"
Rodriguez picked Sunny Acres. He'd heard stories about life at the property, given Sunny Acres' firm footing in SLO County lore. He said the reality was far worse when he arrived in 2016 after quitting a string of cooking jobs in Pismo Beach, Grover Beach, and Nipomo.
"It was a very toxic place. There were men and women both in the program at the time. I was offered to go drink and get high more times than I can count," he said.
Rodriguez added that the relationship between DeVaul and some program participants was prickly long before the county issued its second round of notices.
"Upon arriving at Sunny Acres, you're told, 'The county's bad, Dan's good.' You hear stories of Dan going to war with the county and they were all against what he was doing. Dan was helping all the undesirables with nowhere to go," Rodriguez said. "These were all people who weren't playing ball with Dan. So, it wasn't advised or supported to go seek services from those agencies."
An accidental meeting in 2018—the same year Rodriquez worked as a program leader at Sunny Acres—with two representatives from Transitions-Mental Health Association (TMHA) encouraged Rodriguez to go to rehab. The rehabilitation facility paid for him to go to the Sober College School of Addiction Studies in Sherman Oaks and be a substance abuse counselor, and Rodriguez hopes to take his certification test this year. He said that working at Sunny Acres during the day and attending school at night delayed his goal of becoming a certified addiction counselor.
- Photo By Jayson Mellom
- PARTITION PLEASE The 72-acre Los Osos Valley Road property is divided between Dan DeVaul's ranch and the 20 acres he now leases to the Sunny Acres nonprofit (pictured).
Rodriguez pinpointed the start of his rift with DeVaul to 2018 when he became a program leader. By then, DeVaul was already five years into a 25-year lease that split the 72-acre property between the nonprofit and himself. Due to his failing health, DeVaul decided to mentor Rodriguez to eventually take over the responsibilities of running the facility. Rodriguez, in turn, wanted to transform Sunny Acres from a harm reduction site to a sober-living facility.
"The harm reduction model with people using and drinking, I can go to the streets for that environment. At that moment, he told me, 'You do what you gotta do.' That's when I took over the program, and people that were there for the wrong reasons started leaving—people actively using, selling to other clients," Rodriguez said.
The effect was almost instantaneous on Sunny Acres' 75-strong population at the time.
"Seventy percent were hiding behind sober living environments while still actively using drugs and alcohol. We had people working on the house. We would find beers in the rafters and pipes in the unfinished building. If you were able to work, it was overlooked," Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez is one of the three people advocating on behalf of the nonprofit.
Another is Joseph Kurtzman, the peer services manager. He moved to Sunny Acres in 2019 after being a peer support worker at SLO Behavioral Health's mental health outpatient clinic. Kurtzman told New Times that DeVaul often shouted at program participants and didn't compensate them for the extensive labor they were ordered to do.
"People were spoken to pretty brutally. People were not treated well. One thing was people were working 365 days a year, there were no days off whatsoever. That was going to change. It's not like that now. People do work, generally half days, they have days off," Kurtzman said.
DeVaul's partner, Najarian, said that ever since the nonprofit members took over duties on the property, participants haven't been working as hard.
Kurtzman partially agrees.
"The work ethic is different in the sense that there are no people working eight to 10 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. So that's true, that's not happening," he said. "If that's how they define work ethic, then I'm very grateful that work ethic is gone from the property and banished, and I hope it never returns. People are working reasonable hours and not being exploited because they have nowhere to go."
Program participants pay a maximum of $550 in rent per month. The amount varies based on how much each person can afford and their contribution to ranch upkeep. But DeVaul and Najarian said Sunny Acres degenerated from "vocational rehabilitation" to "more of a cheap place to live" in SLO. They added that the current structure is keeping people on the property for too long.
Rodriguez said that the program participants have never had a time limit.
"If the guys are doing good and are working the program of recovery and living a healthy life, why do they have to go anywhere?" Rodriguez said. "Dan would say you can stay here as long as you want."
Even after DeVaul shelled out $110,000 to the court-appointed receiver 10 years ago, the county took an additional measure to try to prevent future issues.
In May 2013, the property became subject to a permanent injunction that banned DeVaul from a slew of actions—such as having people live in storage units like the garden sheds or increasing the outdoor storage capacity on the property. The injunction also stated that the property and its structures need to remain free of "land use, building, and health and safety violations."
- Photo By Jayson Mellom
- NEW GUARDS Joseph Kurtzman (left) and David Dieter are two representatives of Sunny Acres who want to fix its code-compliance issues, preserve housing for the program's participants, and run the nonprofit independently of Dan DeVaul.
County officials inspected the ranch in June 2021, Assistant County Counsel Jon Ansolabehere said. The 2013 injunction hadn't prevented Sunny Acres from doing any of those things.
"I think there were about 14 sheds adjacent to the stucco barn that people were living in. We also found that people were living in RVs. The RVs were hooked up to power and septic. We don't have any permits for the septic system or the power they were hooked up to," Ansolabehere told New Times.
"We also found that there was additional unpermitted work that was in the barn where Mr. DeVaul is, that there were actually two unpermitted apartments people were living in underneath Mr. DeVaul's apartment," he continued. "There was unpermitted electricity running also in the stucco barn to a whole bunch of refrigerators that were immediately adjacent to the sheds people were living in that also had unpermitted electrical boxes and outlets."
The combination of these violations and issues with filling in the floodplain next to Laguna Lake compelled the county to issue the new violation notices last July.
Rodriguez said DeVaul called him at the time, panicking about managing the accumulated dirt, and asked him to take care of it.
"We took Sunny Acres money and put in the first round of erosion control because it's our home and we're gonna do whatever it takes to fix the problem," Rodriguez said. "I was told [by DeVaul] that it was a waste of money and that the county wasn't going to do anything and we wasted our time."
As Rodriguez started taking more responsibility for the program in 2018, he said he noticed DeVaul beginning to truck dirt onto the property. He claimed DeVaul was approached by multiple trucking companies that wanted to dump their dirt on-site for a fee.
"I knew what he was doing was wrong, but I was focused on the program. Plus, the guys I was working with were then assigned to go out on his dirt, to pick up rocks and clear debris. If they didn't do that he would kick them out. I'm the buffer between him and the guys," Rodriguez said.
Ansolabehere said that it's a difficult process to bring Sunny Acres up to code and ensure its participants are housed in another space during the interim. Roughly half of the 40 men currently in the program are registered sex offenders, and that complicates the situation.
"Sunny Acres has removed five of the nine RVs and were able to find accommodations for those individuals either at the site or elsewhere," Ansolabehere said. "It's difficult. We understand the difficulties in terms of the individuals living there, they're in a sober-living process. Some of them are sex registrants, very difficult to house elsewhere.
"At the same time, we want to make sure they have safe drinking water and permitted housing. That's our goal."
DeVaul thinks the county should be more grateful for his services. He added that the county doesn't want Sunny Acres to shutter since he is the one picking up the pieces for them.
"Isn't it funny? People from Drug and Alcohol, they've got facilities up there to take care of people. But they love sending them out for me to take care of them. The sheriff brings people out here—the people with 290s, the sex offenders. Parole has been sending people out here ever since I started. But yet, they can't throw enough rocks at Dan DeVaul and Sunny Acres," DeVaul said.
But DeVaul's public declarations of helping the downtrodden have members of the nonprofit worried about the narrative he's spinning. Kurtzman said that while DeVaul isn't the owner of Sunny Acres because of its nonprofit nature, he has consolidated his power over the years as the founder of the program.
Both DeVaul and his son James are on the board of directors. As the primary signer of the organization's checking account, DeVaul clutches the program's purse strings. Last year, he blocked Kurtzman, Rodriguez, and other organization board members and staff from accessing the Sunny Acres checking account and canceled the nonprofit's credit card.
As the landlord, Kurtzman said, DeVaul also dangles the possibility of eviction over their heads.
"He acted on his own interests, not in the interests of the people he serves. His position is what allows him to keep trying to evict us, and we're sick of it," Kurtzman said. "What we want is him and his son off the board of directors."
Ever since DeVaul cut the nonprofit off from accessing the Sunny Acres checking account and credit card, Rodriguez and other staffers have had to devise new ways to sustain the program.
- Photo By Jayson Mellom
- QUIET PROTEST David Dieter told New Times that some Sunny Acres residents took down the "DeVaul House" sign in April as a protest against Dan DeVaul's recent eviction threats.
Years before the rift, Sunny Acres sold pumpkins, firewood, and Christmas trees. Coupled with the program fees, DeVaul said these ventures raked in considerable revenue.
But, DeVaul told New Times that these sales took a hit in 2021 under the nonprofit's management. While Christmas tree and firewood deals decreased because of supplier issues and conflict with transporting material from DeVaul's side of the ranch to the nonprofit's 20-acre lot, the failure of Sunny Acres' pumpkin crop underscores the ranch's major water problem.
"The way Dan puts things together, it's very cheaply done. Yes, you can get by with the way he does things, but in the end, it's gonna cost more to fix it. We lost our agricultural well, so we couldn't water pumpkins," Rodriguez said.
DeVaul's old well doesn't meet minimum water quality standards, though Najarian said they're slowly making headway to update it. One solution was to get water service hooked up from the city of SLO, but that deal met a roadblock.
"The difficulty with that is Mr. DeVaul does not have a good track record over the years in terms of his compliance with codes. It's the decision for the city of San Luis Obispo. Extending water service outside of their boundaries is antithetical to a lot of their policies of 'grow up, not grow out,'" Ansolabehere said.
Instead, Rodriguez contacted Hague Quality Water to provide clean water on-site. The nonprofit also paid $5,000 to install a nitrate filtration system on the property, and Hague maintains it. This water is used for cooking, cleaning, and showering. Additionally, the nonprofit contracts with Culligan Water for bottled water deliveries every month. But they ran into a problem as recently as April 19.
DeVaul told the water service to cancel deliveries to the nonprofit, according to Kurtzman.
"Culligan staff said on Tuesday that he called them on April 6 and said he didn't want them delivering it anymore," he said. "So, they came to take their bottles and stands back. Sunny Acres had been paying for the account, and we got them to transfer to us, so we still have water. What is amazing to me is that when Dan told The Tribune, 'We furnish these people bottled water,' he had already canceled the account." ("SLO County sues Sunny Acres ranch owner over living conditions. 'This is just unbelievable,'" April 12, The Tribune)
Kurtzman also told New Times that the nonprofit has made three calls for service to the SLO County Sheriff's Office in April, which the Sheriff's Office confirmed.
On April 7, DeVaul came to the nonprofit's side of the property without giving prior notice. Kurtzman said DeVaul shouted at people and demanded they pay the maximum $550 rent directly to him and not to the nonprofit.
"That call was cleared with no criminal report taken. DeVaul left prior to the deputy arriving. The reporting party was advised of options regarding civil issue landlord-tenant disputes. No further action was requested," said Sheriff's Office spokesperson Tony Cipolla.
Two days later, a deputy was dispatched to investigate an incident that took place on April 8. A resident reported hearing gunshots and "bullets striking metal objects near where he was working, including mobile home trailers." The search found no signs of damage or any shell casings. No subsequent action was taken.
On April 18, a call came in about eight of Rodriguez's chickens being killed. Residents discovered their carcasses in a Sunny Acres dumpster the previous night. No criminal prosecution or further investigation was requested.
"They all seemed to have entrance wounds from a pellet gun, and their necks were broken," Kurtzman said.
With the atmosphere tense as it is, the pall over Sunny Acres darkened once more in April. The county served DeVaul a new nuisance abatement lawsuit for failing to adequately address some of the notices of violation.
"It's getting crazy out here since the lawsuit dropped," said David Dieter, Sunny Acres' construction manager who is the third in the trio of peer leaders and advocates.
Dieter added that residents have been anxious about their futures since news broke in early April about the litigation. DeVaul, perhaps, is just as worried.
"He's feeling trapped; he doesn't know which way to turn. It's starting to affect the people here," Dieter said. "In his mind, he is Sunny Acres. He cannot see the separation between Sunny Acres and Dan DeVaul. Yes, he is the founder of the program, ... but it is not Dan's program."
- Photo By Jayson Mellom
- CORNUCOPIA Sunny Acres picks up daily food donations from the SLO Food Bank—one of several organizations across the county that the nonprofit receives in-kind donations from.
Dieter said there are rumors that DeVaul wants to "chop the program in half" by evicting half the population. Armed with a Hutkin Law Firm attorney, Sunny Acres participants are determined not to let it happen. On April 20, Allen Hutkin filed a labor lawsuit against DeVaul on behalf of a handful of program participants for insufficient payment for their work, bringing the litigation count against DeVaul to two.
The labor lawsuit accuses DeVaul of failing to provide minimum wage, overtime, double time compensation, rest and meal periods, and other forms of payments.
Hutkin told New Times that there's more in the pipeline.
"We're working on a petition of writ of mandate. It's similar to a lawsuit to have the court remove Mr. DeVaul and his son from the board of Sunny Acres," he said.
It's a backup plan if DeVaul doesn't honor a demand letter written by the peer leaders asking for the same.
"He's tried getting Johnny, Joseph, and I off the board twice now. But our attorney stopped it even before it could come to a vote," Dieter said. "He said he would sue them [the board] for not doing their fiduciary duties."
Dieter added that DeVaul never checked up on him or his alcohol addiction when he moved to Sunny Acres six years ago. He credited his recovery process to the camaraderie and support he received from living with other program participants who were determined to get sober.
Along with self-determination, Kurtzman and Rodriguez attributed participant recovery to the network of county agencies like TMHA and the Department of Public Health that help out with services.
Anne Robin, SLO County's Behavioral Health administrator, said that eligible residents have several options for care.
"There are a number of core services for both mental health and substance use disorder treatment, including psychotherapy, group therapy, psychoeducation, medication services, and case management," she said. "The county and our contracted partners also provide other services, including crisis response, prevention services, and court-related programs such as drug court, veterans court, family treatment court, and mental health diversion court."
While the county, the nonprofit, and DeVaul argue over who controls Sunny Acres, another party wants to get involved. Santa Margarita couple Mike and Cheryl Cole are interested in buying DeVaul's ranch, fixing the violations, and letting the nonprofit continue to run the program.
But as of September 2021, DeVaul didn't want to let go, and the ongoing litigation could add uncertainty for the Coles as well.
"If they ultimately purchase the property, they will ultimately be responsible for cleaning it up," Assistant County Counsel Ansolabehere said. "Most buyers don't usually purchase property that's subject of a nuisance abatement [lawsuit], but you never know." Δ
Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at firstname.lastname@example.org.