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Long delayed public workshop on SDC future held online

DECEMBER 1, 2020

Some dismay at urbanized ‘vision’ statement presented for comment

It’s been a tough summer all around, but the consulting firm overseeing the disposition of the Sonoma Developmental Center’s campus and considerable open spaces passed a milestone in its race to meet the state-imposed 2022 deadline to deliver an acceptable Specific Plan for future development.

Rajeev Bhatia, of Dyett & Bhatia Consulting (D& B), hosted the first of six public outreach programs planned to meet the state’s guidelines for forging a Specific Plan for the property’s future.

“These are not the circumstances we expected,” Supervisor Susan Gorin said at the start. “We expected to be huddling over a table, poring over maps, having animated conversations with colleagues, neighbors and friends across the county.”

Instead, over 220 people signed on via computer for a visual experience or listened in and participated by phone. The event started at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 14 and ran until just after 11 a.m., with some people not able to immediately sign in owing to a peculiarity of the hosting program, according to Emmanuel Ursu, the Specific Plan project leader for D& B.

The theme for the workshop was to envision 2040 Sonoma Index-Tribune headlines that might focus on the SDC, a topic assigned to the 20 or more breakout groups that pondered the idea for just under an hour.

To start, however, Bhatia provided a rundown of what’s been happening since the COVID pandemic broke out in March. An opportunity was offered for participants to share their opinions on the latest vision statement drafted by the consultants.

Vision statement concerns

The long ‘vision statement’ presented by D& B for the workshop’s consideration rattled some people from adjacent Glen Ellen. It was a departure from the three-line vision statement presented at a 2019 public workshop held at Hanna Boys Center.

“The new vision statement is quite lengthy and has photographs of urban style housing, presenting a level of density that wasn’t here (in 2019),” Alice Horowitz said. “The reaction I’m getting is ‘what’s that?’ It looks more urban and dense than we were originally thinking.” Horowitz co-chairs the Glen Ellen Forum’s SDC/Eldridge Committee and regularly hears from a wide spectrum of community members. A 15-minute segment intended for people to add sticky notes to an online poster board turned out to be too complicated and visually messy, with multiple large cursors flying around the screen, searching for places to make comments.

Horowitz was one of several people who cited difficulty dealing with the online poster board; she urges people to comment directly on the vision statement at sdcspecificplan. com/contact or via an email to [email protected]

Online survey and outreach

Bhatia reviewed the results of an online public survey taken last April-June that showed overwhelming support for keeping the SDC open spaces open and moderating development with an eye to the rural nature of the surrounding countryside.

D& B also sought out groups considered underrepresented in the surveys, and conducted multiple focus groups with 30 people under 18, a few LatinX youth, approximately 30 people affiliated with the disability community, and a dozen or so close neighbors.

Youth focused on more activities, transportation options, entry-level jobs, and affordable housing. They voiced a strong preference to protect open space, wildlife, and the natural resources of the site.

Members of the disability community want mixed housing options that serve a range of abilities, for assisted and independent living, and also small specialty businesses that serve the disability community. They want to preserve the tranquility and natural landscape of the site, especially for community members who require quiet settings. Better accessibility for wheelchair users and others with limited mobility was another goal.

Nearby neighbors were most focused on maintaining public access to the property, preservation of open space, having transportation options to control traffic, and affordable housing to keep young families in the community.

The survey concluded that all demographic groups strongly expressed the desire to protect open space, wildlife and sacred indigenous sites. A high priority for all demographic groups was to see the SDC site developed in a way that is inclusive, accessible, and inviting to the community, and provides space for the community to thrive.

The history of the site is appreciated, and many people want the historical main building preserved, though there are those who advocate for more modern, sustainable buildings rather than preserving the old campus.

Site Considerations

In reviewing the site assessments made to date, Bhatia noted that there will be “significant infrastructure costs” involved with whatever people want to do with the buildings that are there.

“Many of these buildings are actually in pretty bad shape,” Bhatia said. “Repairing them, abating, upgrading the hazardous materials is expensive and challenging, and because these buildings were designed for purposes that no longer exist, extensive architectural changes would also have to be made to these buildings to meet contemporary needs and the uses that are likely to be at the site.”

He added that most of the existing water infrastructure will need to be fully repaired or replaced, new sewer lines and storm water treatment need to be installed, and that asbestos and mold are present in many buildings and structures, along with other hazardous materials.

Ursu said after the workshop that final site assessments and cost estimation for restoration and/or demolition are still underway with final results hopefully available by the end of the year.

Breakout groups

Twenty groups of 8 to 12 people gathered in separate chat rooms to ponder the question of what SDC type headlines might be on the front page of a 2040 edition of the Sonoma Index-Tribune.

Each group sat with a moderator and discussed a wide range of subjects, including possible headlines, characteristically: “SDC sets example for sustainable development” Results were uniformly positive in tone if not couched as headlines. A consistent theme that emerged from the group comments was keeping SDC open spaces intact and future development modest, family oriented, sustainable, and in keeping with the surrounding countryside, best characterized as rural and residential. Terms like “small town character”, “village,” and “compatible with community” reflected sentiments. Several people were concerned with the financing of the campus development, both from finding any money at all, to being careful about whose money is used and for what. “A dog-friendly, sustainable, European style community, connected to trails with bikes, buses, with an integrated water system for backup and emergency uses,” was fairly representative.

What’s next?

The planners are developing three alternate development plans to be finished by April 2021 and will pick one of them by June. They will develop a draft Specific Plan by August or September, which will be offered for public review in October. When that is finalized, a plan will be adopted and submitted for an Environmental Impact Review. An approved Specific Plan is slated to be approved by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors by June 2022. Bhatia addressed a growing concern among Glen Ellen residents and other local advocates that outside influences are undermining the process.

“There have been a variety of proposals out there, floated by various interest groups,” Bhatia said, “but I want to assure you that no decisions are going to be made outside of this process that has been laid out here without community input and without going through the (Planning Advisory Team – PAT) and the planning design commission and ultimately the Board of Supervisors.”