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County supervisors get first look at SDC developments

Sense is whatever is built will have to support the land

By Jay Gamel

“At the end of the day, whatever is planned there needs to be financially sustainable to cover costs,” Supervisor David Rabbitt summed up what the public input has been so far on the future of the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC). “The county can’t take the state’s burden; we can’t afford it.”

This was a first glimpse into the thinking of the five people ultimately responsible for the future of the now-vacant 945-acre state property in the heart of Sonoma Valley, which was once home to nearly 4,000 developmentally disabled and autistic people and people with moderate to severe life challenges.

What was clear by the end of the meeting is that neighbors and active groups who have been working on the SDC’s future for years are wary of any large scale commercial development on the property, while county and state officials are equally wary of any development that doesn’t cover the cost of maintaining the land in an era of tight budgets.

“My takeaway is that we have got to honor and support the site constraints (both legal and practical) before we start talking about some big, bold new institutional or commercial use of SDC,” John McCaull said after the meeting. “The alternatives produced by the county cannot be divorced from the overlapping layers of General Plan protections and policies that favor protecting the small-town nature of Glen Ellen and the natural environment.” McCaull has represented the Sonoma Land Trust in many roles in the ongoing saga of envisioning a future for the SDC.

Working under a three-year time constraint, the Sonoma County Permit Resources and Materials Department, known as Permit Sonoma, has been developing a Specific Plan for what to do with the property, most of which is open space promised by the state to be used for parkland or wildlife habitat, though none of it has been transferred out of state ownership yet.

The Specific Plan is being developed under the guidance of Oakland-based land use consultant Dyett & Bhatia with the help of a $3.5 million state grant that requires the county to come up with an acceptable plan by the end of the year and approve it by early 2022.

The state requires the Specific Plan to prioritize affordable housing and housing for developmentally disabled people, preserve open lands outside the core developed area, and to maximize the property’s value to potential purchasers. The last requirement is emerging as a bone of contention with many of the people living adjacent to the property. Most are adamant about keeping whatever is built at a low density, reflecting the community character of Glen Ellen and surrounding residences.

The community’s sentiments, and there have been many, have reflected a universal desire to preserve as much open space as possible, keep development minimal, attract a diverse community, and scale the entire project to the existing community.

That has held true for the residents who actively participated in public outreach meetings over the past five years, as well as groups not well-represented in previous public outreach, defined as Spanish speakers, people under 21, and disabled people. The consultants reached out to 75 people in those categories for online and virtual meetings, only to discover that they shared pretty much the same goals as the other participants, while adding more emphasis on inclusion, historic preservation, expanding health services, and especially affordable housing.

First District Supervisor Susan Gorin emphatically stated that Native American organizations are well aware of the project and may partner with other local groups to work on historical preservation and a museum.

The consultants are winding up the long first phase of the Specific Plan—public outreach—and are moving to phase two—developing three alternative scenarios for specific development by April, followed by community meetings to review the alternative development plans with an eye to picking one by mid-summer, and producing a Draft Environmental Impact Report for further public consideration. If that passes muster with the communities and with Permit Sonoma, it will go to the Board of Supervisors for approval at the end of the year.

The SDC lies in the First District, and Susan Gorin has been a force in getting the state and county together to plan the future of the site with community input, and preserve the existing open spaces and wildlife protections. While the remaining supervisors are aware of the site’s unique potential as a national example for innovative planning, they were careful to include the need for financial prudence in whatever comes forth.

“All are in agreement about protecting open space and resource elements,” Fourth District Supervisor James Gore said. “Those are the easiest. The question that comes out is economic feasibility of anything that comes here. That’s a question for consultants and staff.”

Gore questioned staff about their outreach to potential institutional users, suggesting it might be an acceptable use of the land, especially if the housing and commercial development was aimed at a new tenant.

“Over the next few months, the next step is where we can really sit down to discuss with the community and stakeholders the real viability of that,” said Gore.

Gorin suggested that educational opportunities might be developed with the Santa Rosa Junior College. “People have to commute a long distance from the Valley to get to Santa Rosa,” she noted, citing driving times as long as an hour in bad conditions.

The board’s newest supervisor, Third District’s Chris Coursey, questioned whether the outreach process was going far enough afield.

“This needs to be an asset for the Valley, neighbors, Sonoma County and for the state, as well,” he said. “I’m wondering if outreach has gone beyond the borders of Sonoma County.”

Former Specific Plan director,Milan Nevadja called in from his new home on the East Coast to weigh in. “There will be a need for compromise,” he said. “There is a huge cost to holding the land. Without viability, you could lose it all.”

Permit Sonoma Director Tennis Wick observed that the California Department of General Services had observers in the virtual audience. “They will tell us if we don’t attract buyers,” Wick said.

Suggestions were made by the public to add more health and mental health projects, come up with a method for people to submit development ideas, create more public engagement, and add elders to the mix. A call was made for immediate transfer of the open space acreage to the final recipients: both state and regional parks as well as the county’s Open Space District.

Several people expressed fear that the current vision statement calls for the development of a major community in an area not well suited for it.

Victor Gonzalez, who lives with­in a mile of the SDC and serves on the Planning Advisory Team, cautioned that, “The core campus is a liability. It may cost $110 million just to get to the ground, with no buildings.” He said the grounds are situated in an isolated location, in an area with a weak economy, and with an aging population. “The area is blighted and will get worse.”

“There needs to be private money,” Gonzalez said. “That’s the perspective from the real world.”

At the end of the informational meeting, Gorin reminded everyone that the State of California categorically rejected hosting institutional programs on the site.

“The state is not interested in paying for additional services on the site,” she said. “They know how difficult it is to retrofit.”

Rajeev Bhatia, principal of Dyett & Bhatia, said the next steps will include finalizing the vision statement and guiding principles, developing the three alternatives over the next three months, and holding community meetings to discuss them this spring.

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