SAN LUIS OBISPO — Dan de Vaul bumps along a dirt road in a beat-up Jeep on his 72-acre ranch just west of the city limits and pulls to a halt in front of two newly built garden sheds.
"This is our latest illegal adventure," the rancher says, gesturing at the 10-foot-by-12-foot windowless wooden sheds. They won't be filled with farming tools, he announces, but with clients of his sober-living program.
"Those trailers are very illegal too," De Vaul says, pointing to three ramshackle RVs planted in the ground nearby, electrical cords snaking out of them. Homeless addicts and drunks live in them.
This is Sunny Acres, a self-styled rehab compound the 65-year-old De Vaul operates on his ranch a couple of miles west of the famed Madonna Inn. Depending on who's talking, it's either a much-needed haven for homeless people battling addictions or De Vaul's way of thumbing his nose at society and its laws.
For eight years, De Vaul has battled neighbors and San Luis Obispo County code enforcement officers as he's converted his land from cattle range to a thriving hub of mostly illegal money-making ventures. He sells scrap metal from heaps, salvages parts from dozens of rusty vehicles and hawks produce and nursery stock from a stand near the ranch's entry on busy Los Osos Valley Road.
But Sunny Acres, his "Mad Max"-style encampment, which also houses clients in tents and the 1908 ranch house, is perhaps his biggest money-maker. It has also drawn the most attention from neighbors and authorities. They call it an eyesore and a threat to the health and safety of the 30 or so people it's supposed to help. It's also illegal, according to county officials, who say De Vaul has no authority to run a rehab center.
A frequent target
De Vaul has been the target of numerous orders to shut down the center and clean up his property. But as soon as the authorities go away, he lets the sober-living clients back in.
When the county shut down a barn that was illegally converted into a three-story dormitory, De Vaul continued to house clients in it until county workers nailed the doors shut.
"Government should find a way to take care of them, if they don't want to put up with what I'm providing," he said.
Code enforcement workers last year began removing more than 100 vehicles unlawfully stored on his land, including six big rigs, six freight trailers, two dump trucks, four boom trucks and a drilling rig. They plan to continue to do so at De Vaul's expense. He's also got illicit stockpiles of tires and concrete rubble.
Last year, the district attorney's office filed nine criminal misdemeanor counts against him. The case is set for trial this summer. De Vaul, who pleaded not guilty, could face more than four years in jail.
"They're trumped-up charges," he said.
On a recent day, looking like many a prosperous Central Coast rancher in weathered jeans, boots, suspenders and a big western hat, he appeared defiant and nearly taunted officials to come get him.
"Everyone has all these actions against me," he said calmly, relaxing in what one disgruntled neighbor calls his "barndominium," a rustic, open-beamed flat on the second story of a barn. "But no one wants to be the one that comes up and plunges the sword."
Bruce Gibson, the county supervisor whose district includes De Vaul's property, likens the 6-foot De Vaul to a character from the Old West.
"He doesn't want help from the outside, and he doesn't want to be told what to do," Gibson said. "Problem is, he's bumping up against the 21st century."
Gibson admits a grudging admiration for De Vaul's ability to connect with the down-and-out. He said some in San Luis Obispo admire his individualism and defiance, but others think he's a menace.
Taking on 'St. Dan'
Christine Mulholland, for one, isn't charmed.
She's positioned a telescope in her living room so she can keep track of what he's up to. A former San Luis Obispo councilwoman, Mulholland is De Vaul's No. 1 critic and has filed a 10-inch stack of paperwork that documents every alleged code violation since 2000.
When she moved into the quiet tract two decades ago, the picture windows in her living room looked over a pastoral scene: black cows grazing on green fields. Now it resembles a junkyard, with rusting automobiles and piles of scrap metal, the Sunny Acres encampment off in the distance.
It infuriates her when people defend De Vaul for taking in homeless people. "There's a lot of people who think he's St. Dan," said Mulholland, a no-frills woman who stands 6 feet 2 and has decorated her airy home with frog collectibles. "But he's taking money from people to house them in substandard housing."
They are enemies with similar backgrounds, both from pioneering California families.
Mulholland's great-grandfather was William Mulholland, the Los Angeles water czar who built the aqueduct from the Owens Valley to the city. She admires enterprise but says there's a right way to do it.
"With him, it's just an in-your-face refusal to comply," she said.