Not So Sunny: Conflict, noncompliance, and insecurity hang over Sunny Acres, a nonprofit addiction support organization in SLO County (2023)

Dan DeVaul's electric wheelchair announces his arrival before leaving the shed in Sunny Acres. When the steady hum of the cherry-red machine stopped, DeVaul spoke.

click to enlarge

  • Photo by Jason Mead
  • unparalleled workDan DeVaul believes San Luis Obispo County was reluctant to close Sunny Acres because it takes in and harbors stigmatized people, such as registered sex offenders.

"As John Wayne said, 'Mis raices estan aqui.' That means my roots are buried here," DeVaul said.

Wearing an Outback hat to protect himself from the sun, the 78-year-old surveyed his portion of Sunny Acres Farm. That Wednesday in late March, his partner Judie Najarian sat next to him. They faced this building togetherused to be a battlefieldBetween Devorein San Luis Obispo Countyfor many years.

His own recovery — after a car accident that left him temporarily disabled at age 30, and his subsequent addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol — inspired DeVaul to convert his family's Los Osos Valley Road estate into a facility to serve others to help cope with substance abuse problems.

The Sunny Acres non-profit restoration initiative he started has garnered attention ever since. In 2012, the county filed a damage reduction lawsuit against DeVaul alleging that Sunny Acres violated bylaws, which ranged from hoarding to people living in unauthorized buildings. The court appointed an outside health and safety administrator to handle the issues, and DeVaul still recalls the financial pain.

"He can do whatever he wants, and when he's spent his money, he comes to you and says, 'Pay this money and I'll give you your farm back.' I had to pay him $110,000," he said.

Now it's happening again.

In July 2021, the county enacted another set of infractions. This time, it was an unauthorized sewage and electrical system that allowed people to live in RVs on the property and accumulated nearly 150,000 cubic feet of fill in the ranch's floodplain over the course of 20 years.

But DeVaul's feud isn't just about the county.

Residents and program directors at the nonprofit Sunny Acres feared that his recalcitrant interactions with the county would jeopardize the future of local convalescents. When the county filed its latest violation report, members of the nonprofit agreed to work with the county to resolve some of the issues. They have one overarching goal: to preserve Sunny Acres as a modest gated community and non-profit organization without DeVaul.


Johnny Rodriguez, Sunny Acres project leader, has always taken the “harder route”.

After smoking methamphetamine and marijuana and spending time in state prisons in Wasco and Susanville, his brother's life took a turn for the worse when his brother took a fatal overdose of psychotropic drugs and alcohol. Rodriguez's alcoholism increased. He drinks a liter of vodka every day.

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  • Photo by Jason Mead
  • in conflictDavid Dieter, Sunny Acres resident and attorney (left) and Joseph Kurtzman want SLO County nonprofits to be separated from their founders.

"My sister found me in a motel room and gave me a choice: take your pick of those two places, pack your bags, or the family is doomed," said the Santa Maria resident. “At the motel that day I had to make a decision. I looked at myself in the mirror and was honest with myself. Either keep using and die or go to prison for life, or you do something else and try. What have Do you have to lose wool fabric?

Rodriguez chose Sunny Acres. He'd heard the tales of life on the estate because Sunny Acres was steeped in SLO County lore. When he arrived in 2016 after quitting a string of cooking jobs in Pismo Beach, Grover Beach and Nipomo, the reality was far worse, he said.

"It was a very toxic place. There were men and women on the schedule back then. I've been invited to drink and get high more times than I could count," he said.

Rodriguez added that relations between DeVaul and some program participants were strained long before the county issued its second round of notifications.

"When you get to Sunny Acres, they tell you, 'The province sucks, but Dan's fine.' You hear stories of Dan going to war with the county, and they all object to what he's doing does. Dan helps all the people who don't need people but have nowhere to go," Rodriguez said. "These are people who haven't played with Dan, so seeking help from those agencies is not recommended or encouraged."

In a chance encounter in 2018 — the same year Rodriguez was serving as program director at Sunny Acres — two representatives from the Transition-Mental Health Association (TMHA) encouraged Rodriguez to go into rehab. The rehab facility paid for him to attend Sober College's School of Addiction Studies in Sherman Oaks and train as a substance abuse counselor, and Rodriguez hopes to sit his certification exam this year. Working at Sunny Acres by day and going to school by night delayed his goal of becoming a certified addiction counselor, he said.

click to enlarge

  • Photo by Jason Mead
  • please partition The 72 acres on Los Osos Valley Road are split between Dan DeVaul's ranch and the 20 acres he now leases to the non-profit Sunny Acres (pictured).

Rodriguez noted that he parted ways with DeVaul from the beginning until he became program director in 2018. By then, DeVaul had signed a 25-year, five-year lease, dividing the 72-acre property between the nonprofit and himself. Due to his failing health, DeVaul decided to direct Rodriguez to eventually assume operational responsibility for the facility. In return, Rodriguez hopes to transform Sunny Acres from a damage control site to a low-key gated community.

“The harm reduction model of people consuming and drinking, I could take to the streets for that environment. That's when he said to me, 'Do what you have to do.' And then I took over the project and they were there for the wrong reasons of people starting to leave – the ones that are actively using other customers and selling to others,” said Rodriguez .

The impact on Sunny Acres, then 75 strong, was almost immediate.

"70% of people hide out in harsh living conditions while still actively using drugs and alcohol. We have people who repair houses. We find beer in the rafters and pipes of unfinished buildings. If you can work, it will be ignored." said Rodriguez.

Rodriguez was one of three people who championed the nonprofit organization.

The other is Joseph Kurtzman, peer services manager. He moved to Sunny Acres in 2019 after working as a peer support worker at SLO Behavioral Health's mental health outpatient clinic. says KurtzmanNeue Don'tDeVaul frequently yelled at project participants and did not compensate them for the extensive work they had to do.

"People were treated roughly. People weren't treated well. One thing is that people work 365 days a year without even having a day off. That's going to change. It's not like that anymore. People work usually. They rest half the time," Kurtzmann said.

DeVaul's partner, Najarian, said attendees hadn't worked as hard since nonprofit members took charge.

Kurtzman partially agrees.

“The work ethic is different because nobody works eight to ten hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. So it's true, it's not going to happen," he said. "If that's how you define work ethic, then I'm grateful that work ethic has been removed from institutions and banned, and I hope it never comes back. People work decent hours and are not exploited because they have nowhere else to go.”

Program participants pay up to $550 per month in rent. Amounts vary based on each individual's affordability and contribution to the upkeep of the farm. But DeVaul and Najarian say SLO's Sunny Acres has degenerated from a "professional rehab center" to a "cheaper place to live." They added that the current structure keeps people confined to the site for too long.

Rodriguez said there was never a time limit on participants in the program.

"If these people are doing great, they're in a rehab program, and they're living healthy lives, why are they going anywhere?" Rodriguez said. "Dan would say you can stay as long as you like."

fight forever

Even after DeVaul paid $110,000 to a court-appointed trustee 10 years ago, the district has taken additional steps to avoid future problems.

In May 2013, the property was the subject of a long-standing injunction that prevented DeVaul from taking actions such as The order also states that property and associated structures must be kept free from "land use, building, health and safety violations."

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  • Photo by Jason Mead
  • new waiting Joseph Kurtzman (left) and David Dieter are two Sunny Acres representatives working to resolve compliance issues, obtain housing for program participants, and run the nonprofit independently of Dan DeVaul.

Deputy County Councilor Jon Ansolabehere said county officials visited the ranch in June 2021. The 2013 ban didn't stop Sunny Acres from doing all of those things.

“I think there were about 14 sheds next to the plaster huts that people lived in. We also found people living in mobile homes. The mobile homes were connected to electricity and septic tank. We didn't have a permit for the septic tank or the electricity They were plugged in," Ansolabehere sharedNeue Don't.

"We also determined that there was more unauthorized work in the shed where Mr. DeVaul was located, and there were actually two unauthorized apartments where people lived below Mr. DeVaul's apartment," he continued. "There was also unauthorized power in the painted shed to a large number of refrigerators right next to the shed where people lived who also had unauthorized electrical boxes and outlets."

The combination of these violations and problems with floodplains near Laguna Lake forced the county to report new violations last July.

Rodriguez said DeVaul called him at the time, panicked to deal with the accumulated dirt, and let him do it.

"We took the money from Sunny Acres and put in the first round of erosion control because this is our home and we'll stop at nothing," Rodriguez said. "[DeVaul] told me it was a waste of money, the county won't do anything, we're wasting our time."

As Rodriguez began taking more responsibility for the project in 2018, he said he noticed DeVaul was starting to drag dirt onto the property. He claims DeVaul approached several trucking companies who wanted to pay to dispose of garbage on-site.

"I know he's doing it wrong, but I'm focused on the project. Also, the guys I work with are instructed to go to his dirt, pick up rocks, remove debris. If they don't, he kicks them out. I'm a buffer between him and everyone else," Rodriguez said.

Getting Sunny Acres used to the code and making sure participants lived in different rooms at the same time was a difficult process, Ansolabehere says. To make matters worse, about half of the 40 men currently enrolled in the program are registered sex offenders.

"Sunny Acres removed five of the nine campers and was able to find accommodation for those individuals locally or elsewhere," Ansolabehere said. "It's tough. We understand the difficulties of the people who live there, who are in the process of awakening. Some of them are gender specific and it is very difficult to be accommodated elsewhere.

“At the same time, we want to make sure they have clean drinking water and legal housing. That is our goal.”

DeVaul thinks the county should be more grateful for his service. He added that the county doesn't want Sunny Acres to close because he's the one picking up the pieces for them.

"Is not that funny? People who do drugs and alcohol, they have facilities out there to take care of people. But they are happy to send them to me to take care of them. 290s, sex offenders. Probation has been laying people off since I started here. But they can't throw enough stones at Dan DeVaul and Sunny Acres," DeVaul said.

But DeVaul's public statements about helping the downtrodden have members of the nonprofit concerned about the story he's telling. Although DeVaul doesn't own Sunny Acres due to its nonprofit nature, he's cemented his power as the project's founder over the years, Kurtzman said.

DeVaul and his son James are both board members. As the primary signatory of the group's checking account, DeVaul holds the program's wallet. Last year, he blocked Kurtzman, Rodriguez and other board members and employees from accessing Sunny Acres checking accounts and suspended the nonprofit's credit card.

Like the landlord, DeVaul is at risk of eviction, Kurtzman said.

"He acted in his own best interest, not in the best interests of those he served. His position allows him to keep trying to deport us and we've had enough," Kurtzman said. "What we want is that he and his son disappear from the board."

self-help strategy

Because DeVaul denied nonprofits access to Sunny Acres checking accounts and credit cards, Rodriguez and other employees had to find new ways to support the program.

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  • Photo by Jason Mead
  • Style Protest Say David DeeterNeue Don'tSome residents of Sunny Acres tore down the "DeVaul House" sign in April to protest Dan DeVaul's recent eviction threats.

A few years before the split, Sunny Acres sold pumpkins, firewood, and Christmas trees. When combined with project costs, the projects generate significant revenue, DeVaul said.

However, DeVore saidNeue Don'tThose sales took a hit in 2021 under the nonprofit's leadership. Trade in Christmas trees and firewood shrank due to supplier issues and conflicts over sourcing materials from the ranch on the DeVaul side to the nonprofit's 20-acre property, while a failed pumpkin harvest on Sunny Acres highlighted the ranch's major water problems.

“The way Dan puts things together is really cheap. Yes, you can fix things the way he does, but it will end up costing more to fix. We lost our farmland, so we couldn't water the pumpkins," Rodriguez said.

DeVaul's old well doesn't meet minimum water quality standards, though Najarian said they're slowly making progress updating it. One solution was to connect the water supply to SLO City, but there was a catch to that deal.

“The difficulty is that Mr. DeVaul has not had a good track record of compliance over the years. This is the decision of the City of San Luis Obispo. Expanding water supplies beyond their borders is at odds with many of their growth, not growth policies," 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 that Hague maintains. This water is used for cooking, cleaning and showering. In addition, the nonprofit has a monthly contract with Culligan Water for the supply of bottled water. But it wasn't until April 19 that they ran into trouble.

DeVaul asked the water company to cancel deliveries to the nonprofit, Kurtzman said.

"Culligan's staff said on Tuesday that he'd have them on the 6th." So they came and got the water bottles and stood there. Sunny Acres paid the bill and we got a wire to make sure we still had water. To my surprise, when DanTellfrom the stands, 'We're providing bottled water to these people,' and he canceled the bill. "SLO County is suing Sunny Acres farmers over living conditions.from the stands)

Kurtzman also saidNeue Don'tThe nonprofit made three service calls to the SLO County Sheriff's Office in April, which the sheriff's office confirmed.

On April 7, without notice, DeVaul sided with the nonprofit. Kurtzman said DeVaul yelled at people to pay him up to $550 in rent directly instead of to the nonprofit.

Sheriff's Office spokesman Tony Cipolla said, "The call was authorized without filing a criminal report. DeVaul departed before the deputies arrived. The reporting party was notified of a civil matter between the landlord and the tenant. Options. It was no further action required."

Two days later, a sheriff's deputy was dispatched to investigate an April 8 incident. One resident reported hearing gunshots and "bullets hitting metal objects near where he worked, including an RV." A search revealed no signs of damage or housing. No further action was taken.

On April 18, a report said about eight chickens owned by Rodriguez had been killed. Local residents found their bodies in a dumpster in Sunny Acres the night before. No criminal charges or further investigations were called for.

"They all appeared to have gunshot wounds and a broken neck," Kurtzman said.

In a tense atmosphere, the veil was darkened again at Sunny Acres in April. The county filed a new lawsuit against DeVaul for failing to adequately address certain violations.

lawsuit pending

"Things have gotten crazier here since the lawsuit was dropped," said David Dieter, construction manager at Sunny Acres, the third of a trio of peer leaders and attorneys.

Residents have been worried about their future since news of the lawsuit broke in early April, Dieter added. DeVaul might be concerned as well.

“He felt stuck, he didn't know where to go. It started affecting people here," Dieter said. “In his mind he was Sunny Acres. He couldn't tell the difference between Sunny Acres and Dan DeVaul. Yes, he was the founder of the program...but it wasn't Dan's program."

click to enlarge

  • Photo by Jason Mead
  • treasure bowl Sunny Acres collects daily food donations from the SLO Food Bank, one of several organizations the nonprofit accepts in-kind donations from across the country.

Rumors circulated that DeVaul wanted to "cut the plan in half" by deporting half the population, Dieter said. With the help of an attorney from the Hutkin law firm, the Sunny Acres candidates are determined not to let that happen. On April 20, Allen Hutkin filed a labor lawsuit against DeVaul on behalf of a small number of program participants, alleging that they were underpaid for their work, bringing the number of lawsuits against DeVaul to two.

The labor lawsuit alleges that DeVaul failed to provide minimum wage, overtime pay, dual career wages, breaks and meal breaks, and other forms of wages.

said HartkinNeue Don'tThere are many more in the pipeline.

"We are processing the permit application. This is similar to a lawsuit asking the court to remove Mr. DeVaul and his son from Sunny Acres' board of directors," he said.

It is a backup plan if DeVaul does not acknowledge the request letter written by the peer leader and makes the same request.

"He's tried twice now to get Johnny, Joseph and me off the board. But our lawyers blocked that before the vote," said Dieter. "He said he would sue them [the board] for failing to fulfill their fiduciary duty."

Dieter added that DeVaul never checked on him or his alcohol addiction when he moved to Sunny Acres six years ago. He attributes his recovery process to the camaraderie and support he found living with other program participants who were determined to quit drinking.

In addition to self-determination, Kurtzman and Rodriguez credit the participants' recovery process to the help of services provided by a network of provincial agencies such as TMHA and the Department of Health.

Anne Robin, SLO County Behavioral Health Administrator, said eligible residents have a variety of care options.

"There are many core services for mental health and substance abuse treatment, including psychotherapy, group therapy, psychoeducation, drug services and case management," she said. “The county and our contractors also provide additional services, including crisis response, preventive services, and justice programs such as drug courts, veterans courts, family therapy courts, and mental health diversion courts.”

When the county government, nonprofits, and DeVaul clash over who controls Sunny Acres, the other side wants to step in. Santa Margarita couple Mike and Cheryl Cole are interested in buying the ranch from DeVaul, addressing the violations and having the nonprofit run the program.

But as of September 2021, DeVauldon't want to let go, and ongoing studies may also contribute to Coles' uncertainty.

"If they end up buying the property, they are ultimately responsible for cleaning it up," Assistant District Attorney Ansolabehere said. "Most homebuyers don't typically buy a property involved in loss mitigation [litigation], but you never know." △

Meet staff writer Bulbul Rajagopal[email protected].


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  • Join a support group.
Sep 15, 2022

Why is it important to have a strategy for staying alcohol free? ›

It can lead to car accidents, violent behavior, alcohol poisoning, and other health problems. Drinking at a young age greatly increases the risk of developing alcohol problems later in life. Talking to kids early and openly about the risks of drinking can help reduce their chances of becoming problem drinkers.

What is drug abuse prevention control? ›

To help the individuals with drug abuse problem through a specialized treatment program in a homey atmosphere with the aim of rebuilding their lives, making them better and more productive citizens of the community. To be the center of excellence in providing holistic treatment to persons who use drugs.


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