It’s difficult to say whether Dan DeVaul won or lost in court on June 17 and 18. He dodged an attempt by San Luis Obispo County officials to take control of Sunny Acres, his sober-living ranch facility on the edge of SLO, but about 20 residents could be evicted, sent back onto streets by July 19 with $1,500 each, and the county is offering no alternative housing.
SLO County Superior Court Judge Charles Crandall had yet to make a ruling as of press time, but as he closed the hearing on June 18, Crandall indicated he was siding with the county, meaning two dozen Sunny Acres residents could be evicted (16 to 24 residents depending on how Crandall rules, DeVaul said).
Speaking to a reporter outside the courtroom, Sunny Acres resident Don Bickford said people at the ranch were “nervous and they’re hurt.”
Faced with the prospect of losing Sunny Acres as a home, Bickford said he would have to rely on homeless shelters or apply for a government-assistance program. But the available shelters are “a dump compared to Dan’s,” he said and many residents would likely relapse if evicted. “The ranch, it’s a clean environment and it’s uplifting to the people who live out there, mind and body.”
Still, county officials are steadfast that most buildings at Sunny Acres are unsafe for humans, among a laundry list of other complaints of poor water quality and hazardous materials. In total, the county filed nine issues in a motion for preliminary injunction, which would force DeVaul to comply by court order. If the order is granted, DeVaul must vacate most of the structures and pay residents $1,500 each for relocation and retrofit or demolish the structures. The county also filed a motion to be appointed as receiver, which would allow it to assume responsibility of the ranch and bill DeVaul. Terrence Cassidy, an attorney representing the county, agreed to withdraw the request for a county receiver, but in exchange added three county inspections through Sept. 2. Though a final judgment wasn’t made in court, if DeVaul fails to comply (there will likely be a 45-day timeline for compliance), Cassidy said the county would re-file a motion to be appointed as receiver. Either way, many Sunny Acres residents are facing eviction.
“Sunny Acres is fighting for its life,” DeVaul said before court.
DeVaul seemed deflated, often drifting his view outside a nearby window and speaking barely above a whisper.
“With all the people who need help right now, the county wants to shut it down because we’re not doing it [their] way,”
DeVaul said he’s working toward compliance. He has plans for a 14-bedroom housing structure, he’s retrofitted the ranch’s cabins (the county referred to such structures as sheds), and he’s trying to apply for additional building permits. The problem, he said, is the county won’t speak with him or accept his applications for building permits. County officials stopped participating in negotiations with him a few months ago because he refused to drop his lawsuit against the county.
Sunny Acres attorney John Belsher argued the county was seeking a court order based on evidence dating back a year or more, or in some instances with no evidence at all.
“I don’t understand the relationship between the claims the county is making and the evidence they’re presenting,” Belsher argued. “When the county tells you there is no compliance, that is untrue … these are lawyers’ statements, not sworn testimony.”
One key discrepancy was over water tests the county conducted about a year ago that showed the presence of coliforms and E. coli bacteria. According to DeVaul and Belsher, Sunny Acres had two additional water tests performed by a private laboratory that turned up clean results. County officials refused to accept Sunny Acres’ results as valid, they said.
As DeVaul sees things, the county is hitting him with a shell game of issues, things like an 80-year-old well DeVaul said he now has to prove was permitted, though he didn’t build it.
Crandall was clearly in favor of granting the injunction and forcing DeVaul to prove he is meeting all of the county’s demands.
“The guts of this as I see it is people living there and whether they should be living there,” he said.
But Belsher said DeVaul has presented the county with proof of compliance before and been ignored. Cassidy countered that the county was simply pursuing years-old abatement orders that were never complied with because of an “overwhelming resistance to compliance by Mr. DeVaul.”
“It seems like what we’re hearing is they want to comply and they’re going to comply,” Cassidy told the court. “But I’m not sure.”
As of press time it was unclear how Crandall would rule and how much of the injunctive order would be fully enforced, if any. Asked about his plans and those of the 16-24 residents who may soon be evicted, DeVaul sounded lost.
“Nobody can seem to understand what we’re saying,” he said. “There’s no reason to kick these people out. Anybody can come out here and see that there’s not.”
Staff Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.