Drawing lines and breaking barriers in Eldridge
By Tracy Salcedo
I’ve been all over the map on this one. My personal interplay with Eldridge (site of the former Sonoma Developmental Center) has amped up over the last few months, so column fodder has been accumulating like leaves fallen from wintering oaks. Trail use, roller skaters, homelessness, decay, community activism, politics— each is a headline. When such range is possible, it’s hard to know where to start.
The SDC workshop for the Sonoma County’s Board of Supervisors on Jan. 26 delivered focus. Halfway through the specific planning process for SDC, it was time to bring the supervisors up to speed—or at least to get them in the car. Within a year, these five people are going to vote on a plan that defines how Eldridge moves into the future—and with it, Glen Ellen. The timeline is insanely short and the process is hamstrung by pandemic restrictions, but the county must forge ahead, ready or not.
In advance of the workshop, letters addressing a proposed vision and guiding principles were submitted by a slew of local organizations: the Glen Ellen Forum’s SDC/Eldridge Committee, Sonoma Mountain Preservation, Sonoma Land Trust, Sonoma Ecology Center, Sustainable Sonoma, Greenbelt Alliance, the Glen Ellen Historical Society, and more (you can read some of these letters by visiting eldridgeforall.org, clicking on the “Public Comment” link, and scrolling down). Individuals submitted letters as well, including me. That letter proved my launching pad for this column.
Personally, I love the succinctness of the vision and guiding principles from the 2019 community workshop, which were solidly supported by more than 170 stakeholders. Full disclosure: I was a wordsmith on that endeavor, along with John McCaull of Sonoma Land Trust and Richard Dale of Sonoma Ecology Center. But also full disclosure: That vision and those principles weren’t our ideas. They were distillations of what the community has been repeating from the beginning: Preserve the open space. Provide homes that people can afford. Preserve the site’s country character by making sure development is compatible with the surrounding community, so roads aren’t gridlocked and the wildlife corridor is buffered and the place continues to feel like home. I think the county consultants, Dyett & Bhatia, have done well to retain most of those themes, but the new language is denser and somehow feels foreign. That said, the local community’s hopes for Eldridge remain front and center. Glen Ellenites like me are certain to be mislabeled NIMBY because of our activism, but hopefully the supervisors and other stakeholders understand we are okay with the change that’s coming. We just want to help shape that change so it benefits Glen Ellen as well as everybody else.
I focused on three points in my letter to the supervisors. They are familiar calls to action, but they might fall away if they aren’t spotlighted and fought for.
Preserve the open space now
While the intent, stated in legislation, is for SDC’s open space lands to be preserved as open space, the language in the law is slippery. Disposition of the property is at the discretion of the director of the Department of General Services (DGS), who operates in the same climate of uncertainty we all do (think fire, pandemic, insurrection). Regardless of intent, there’s nothing to prevent priorities from changing. Simply put, at this point, transfer of the open space is not a done deal. It’s just not.
I, for one, won’t be satisfied until it is. In my view, SDC’s wildlands need to stay in the public trust, protected under a conservation easement and/ or transferred to state and county parks outside the specific planning process and ahead of the property’s disposition. Immediate transfer and preservation will benefit DGS, which won’t have the burden or liability associated with maintaining what’s increasingly used as parkland; it will benefit a potential master developer, who won’t have the cost burden of doing that work themselves; it will benefit users, because trails and facilities will be properly managed and maintained; and it will benefit the land itself, protecting the critical wildlife corridor and the last, best pocket of wildness in Sonoma Valley.
Preserve community character
It’s a tough thing to argue because it gets a bad rap, but community character matters. This is a country place, quiet and beautiful, and these attributes are why people want to live, work, and play in Glen Ellen and Eldridge. To maintain this character and extend it to others, we need to preserve as much of what currently exists as possible. Reuse existing buildings if feasible. Keep new development within existing developed footprints. Maintain the look and feel of the Arnold Drive corridor. Minimize traffic impacts. Ensure building envelopes don’t impinge on the wildlife corridor and open space. Mitigate wildfire risk.
All this sounds exclusive and rich and white, hence the bad rap. When I first heard exclusivity and anti-equity mentioned with regard to Glen Ellen, my first reaction was to deny. Even though white and rich dominates north of the Eldridge campus, on the south side Glen Ellen is working class, browner, and poorer. Then it hit me: Even this little town is segregated. But that doesn’t have to be. As a brown person and a long-time resident, I believe Glen Ellen and Eldridge are primed to model how a community can embrace people from different socioeconomic, ethnic, and racial backgrounds. After all, the developmentally disabled are among the most disenfranchised of all communities, and while there is dark history in Eldridge, in its later years SDC residents were embraced by Glen Ellenites. They were our neighbors and friends. Through this lens, when I envision community at Eldridge, I envision market rate, workforce, and affordable housing, housing for seniors and housing for the developmentally disabled, all coexisting on the property. Building density, height, and style should not indicate where the brown people live versus the white, the rich people versus the poor, the young versus the old, or the able versus the differently abled. This should be our goal, no matter the cost.
An Eldridge Trust
Finally, I want to beat the drum for an Eldridge Trust. The property’s vision and guiding principles are the mirror we will hold up to ensure redevelopment reflects our values and intentions. Maintaining these intentions through the property’s disposition and beyond requires a governing body that can oversee redevelopment, holding the vision first and foremost. An Eldridge Trust, composed of stakeholders from diverse backgrounds, should be incorporated into the specific plan to perform that critical task. The Planning Advisory Team is the model for this trust, where members would serve as both sector-specific resources and community ambassadors. We have no idea what will be needed at Eldridge in the future (again, think fire, pandemic, insurrection). The key is to trust that the ideals and needs of the present and the future will be faithfully implemented.
Tracy Salcedo is an awardwinning author and editor living and working in Glen Ellen.