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NOVEMBER 15, 2021 - Dense development plans for state land provoke harsh responses

The Sonoma Developmental Center’s future enters murky and turgid waters
Dense development plans for state land provoke harsh responses
A reception area in the Chamberlain Lab Building at the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC), built in 1954. On Nov. 10, Bradley Dunn of Permit Sonoma led members of the media on a tour of the SDC campus that included venturing into the interiors of some of the buildings. The structures are still outfitted for institutional use but generally in good shape. The state of California, which owns the land and operated the former developmental center, shuttered the facility in 2018 and tasked Sonoma County to collaborate with the community to develop a specific plan that would guide redevelopment of the 945-acre site. Three alternatives for redevelopment are now being circulated for public comment. Legislation authorizing the specific planning process requires preservation of about 750 acres of the SDC’s open space, encompassing the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor, and redevelop about 200 acres of the site for housing and other community uses.Photo by Paul Goguen

NOVEMBER 15, 2021

By Jay Gamel

The Sonoma Developmental Center’s (SDC) future is looking like a turkey highly unlikely to be rendered palatable to anyone by Thanksgiving, Christmas, the New Year, or even the 2022 state-imposed deadline to deliver a marketable development plan.

Three alternative proposals submitted by the project consultant and Sonoma County planning professionals have stirred growing dismay among housing development experts and conservationists, angered local members of a planning advisory group, and terrified neighbors with visions of a sprawling new city rising on the SDC campus.

The SDC Alternatives Report calls for the addition of 990, 1,190 or 1,290 units of mixed housing (about 25 percent affordable), along with a large hotel, commercial and institutional property, and a strong nod to preserving a wide, green, wildlife corridor that allows passage for animals from one side of Sonoma Valley to the other. Those housing numbers yield population figures of 2,500 to 4,000-plus, depending on who is projecting the numbers.

A nod is also provided to various levels of preservation and reuse of existing buildings, community use, and commercial and institutional ventures.

“I’m being hit by people in shock because of the numbers and overall development density,” Vicki Hill said. “I felt the same.” Hill is a land use planner, resident of Glen Ellen, and part of the 13-member Planning Advisory Team (PAT) recruited to assist with creating a specific plan for the SDC’s future development.

“These three alternatives don’t create real choices or options; they are just slightly different iterations,” said John McCaull, the land acquisition director for the Sonoma Land Trust (SLT) and a member of the PAT. “Carefully planned and equitable housing on the site is possible, but the alternatives posed don’t sufficiently address environmental constraints and values, which is inconsistent with the guiding principles adopted in January.”

McCaull and the SLT have worked with other conservation organizations to develop and extend an eastwest wildlife corridor that would be threatened with dense development. They feel the dense developments proposed do not respect the realities of protecting the wildlife corridor.

Shaken Glen Ellen residents clamored for a “Fourth Alternative” at a two-and-a-half-hour virtual meeting on Nov. 8 attended by over 100 people. The event was sponsored by the Glen Ellen Forum. Glen Ellen sits next door to the SDC.

The SDC specific planning process is the stepchild of a hybrid land disposition process. The 950 acres in question are owned by the state of California and will be sold as surplus land by the state’s Department of General Services (DGS). Normally, the DGS first offers surplus property like the SDC to other state agencies, worthy nonprofits, educational institutions, etc., then puts that property up for sale on the open market.

However, the SDC property is unique, having been the home for over 100 years to people with developmental disabilities, a home originally sited on 1,500 pristine acres in the middle of Sonoma Valley, far from cities and towns, isolated and ideal for the purpose. The hamlets of Glen Ellen, Eldridge, Kenwood, and communities surrounding the city of Sonoma housed most of the SDC’s staff, which tended to the residents around the clock. They mostly lived in modest homes acquired in a kinder economic climate.

Although the land is owned by the state, what a private landowner can do with it will depend entirely on what zoning is allowed by Sonoma County. Having that zoning sorted out ahead of time takes a lot of risk and guesswork out of the sale process. That’s what this specific plan is all about.

What’s different about the SDC land is that state legislators directed the DGS to consider the community’s feelings and wishes, preserve most of the open space (about 750 acres), and build affordable housing within the remaining campus area. These constraints are proving difficult to resolve in a single plan, especially with a deadline looming. County supervisors have until January to approve a preferred alternative and must have a specific plan ready by mid-2022.

That deadline seems to be driven by the high cost of keeping buildings on the SDC campus warm enough to slow deterioration, provide fire protection and security, perform vegetation management, and more — all critical elements of keeping 150 aging buildings secure. That costs over $13 million a year and the DGS has specifically told county officials that “there’s no more money.” What that means is uncertain, but the state is the owner until the SDC is sold.

Few people argue that affordable housing isn’t needed throughout Sonoma County, but there are questions as basic as whether the SDC property is even an appropriate place to build it. Lack of public transportation and health and other services, narrow roads already near capacity, and uncertain demands on the existing water, sewage, and power supplies, are all potential constraints.

New Town, Eldridge Enterprise, and SDC Campus Project are three privately developed housing proposals, developed locally with a wide scope of uses. None were acknowledged in the current alternatives. These proposals can be read at eldridgeforall. org/private-proposals. There is another huge obstacle in the way of building. The cost of rehabilitating or removing the existing elderly buildings and failed infrastructure has never been clearly assessed, but best guesses are running into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Any future buyer is expected to pick up that cost.

All this adds up to a tough sell to a master builder, according to several members of the PAT, the group of local professionals with expertise related to land use and housing convened by Sonoma County to advise the process. Many PAT members feel they had little input into the process that shaped the current alternatives.

Robert Upton, Victor Gonzalez, and Peter Ziblatt all have extensive experience with development, land use, and the legal aspects of land use and real estate. All doubt the alternatives proposed are workable.

“One of the key requirements from the state is that the project has to be economically feasible,” Upton said. “I am concerned that the specific plan be based on realistic assumptions of costs and revenues that will make it attractive for a developer to take on the risks inherent in such a complicated property. If this doesn’t happen then the property will be unsaleable, and I can see the state boarding up the property and allowing it to slowly fall apart.”

Like many other PAT members, Upton was unhappy that they were given the final report just days before it was released to the public on Nov. 1.

Ziblatt, an attorney with deep experience with major developments, sees significant challenges for the SDC as an effective housing site due to its substantial infrastructure needs. “It’s a difficult development location for affordable housing, or even for single-family housing, due to development constraints, costs, location, and market,” he observed.

The consultant, Dyett & Bhatia, ran even higher housing numbers by the PAT in April, ranging from 1,500 to 2,200 units, but came back with the present numbers at the next meeting, according to meeting notes and members.

The high numbers may be driven, in part, by a regional housing requirement that the county plan to build about 3,900 homes (including affordable homes) in the unincorporated areas in its 2023 General Plan. Failure to include those homes in the General Plan could lead to a cutoff of major housing funding from the federal and state governments.

Since the alternatives were made public on Nov. 1, the Glen Ellen Forum has sponsored two meetings and the Sonoma Land Trust sponsored a Nov. 9 webinar focusing on the need to protect the wildlife corridor. Visit glenellen. org and the Sonoma Land Trust website for more information.

Next steps

A Spanish-language town hall is scheduled for Nov. 16 at 5:30 p.m. at St. Leo’s Catholic Church, 601 W.

Agua Caliente Rd., Sonoma.

A combined virtual meeting of the North Sonoma Valley Municipal Advisory Council (MAC), the Springs MAC, and the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission is set for Nov. 17 at 5:30 p.m. Find a registration link at sdcspecificplan. com/meetings.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors will settle on a preferred alternative for an environmental impact report (EIR) sometime in January. The public will weigh in at several points during the process going forward, including on the draft EIR in May. A final specific plan and EIR decision, which will be approved by the board of supervisors, is expected by late summer or fall.