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Seeds for high SDC housing numbers set years ago

Community split on developing expansive state property in wildlife corridor
Seeds for high SDC housing numbers set years ago
The lawn and some of the buildings of the historic district on the west side of the SDC campus targeted for re-developement.Photo by Paul Goguen

By Jay Gamel

So, what is “economically feasible affordable housing?”

In the case of the Sonoma Developmental Center’s (SDC’s) 180-acre campus, 750 market-rate homes and a hotel are the bare minimum necessary for a master developer to fund 240 affordable units and underwrite demolition and cleanup of over a hundred rundown buildings and houses on the campus, according to the Alternatives Report published by Permit Sonoma and Dyett and Bhatia on Nov. 1.

When the state of California shuttered the existing facility for developmentally disabled people in 2018, it agreed to allow community input into what happens to the 945-acre property, promising to keep the open spaces open, protect wildlife, and allow Sonoma County and neighbors to participate in working out a Specific Plan for future uses.

The state then decreed, in a 2019 budget bill, that while it’s OK with transferring 700+ acres of open space to parks and wildlife projects, the core campus must include “economically feasible” affordable housing, including some for developmentally disabled people, like those displaced when the center closed in 2018.

After working on the concept with the Oakland-based Dyett & Bhatia consulting firm since 2019, Permit Sonoma released three alternative development proposals on Nov. 1, calling for 990, 1,190, or 1,290 homes plus a high-end hotel, along with various commercial developments and rehabilitation projects in each scenario.

The consultant’s “feasibility” formula calls for 24+ percent of each scenario’s housing to be affordable: three market-rate units for each affordable unit.

These alternatives met with immediate and vocal opposition.

“There are numerous ways the state can support the redevelopment of SDC through financing mechanisms and outright investment in affordable housing, water resources, climate change resilience, and biodiversity protection,” said John McCaull, land acquisition director for the Sonoma Land Trust (SLT), who has been focused on the future of the SDC for nearly a decade.

“The $100 million cleanup and infrastructure upgrades should not be paid for exclusively by zoning SDC for urban-scale densities. We need the state to be a bigger partner is solving this cost problem,” he concluded.

Even strong housing advocates are nonplussed.

“How much development can the SDC accommodate and still be harmonious with open space, the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor, Glen Ellen, and Sonoma Valley? Do any of the alternatives provide affordable housing and redevelopment at a scale that suits the site and the valley?” These questions are posed on the Eldridge for All website ( and reflect what many people have expressed locally and at a public meeting convened with the Sonoma Valley’s two Municipal Advisory Councils and the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission (SVCAC).

“How did this go so far off the tracks?” Arthur Dawson, chair of the North Sonoma Valley Municipal Advisory Council (NSVMAC), asked at the Nov. 17 combined virtual meeting. “What are you willing and able to do to restore public trust in the Specific Plan?”

The high densities rattled wildlife advocates who have been working for decades to protect a viable wildlife corridor allowing passage for animals from Sonoma Mountain to the Mayacamas Mountains, across and under Highway 12, which divides the valley.

“Each alternative is predicated on the idea of how much development can be squeezed in at SDC within various rules (often built on outdated concepts and information), rather than beginning with the values we want SDC to embody in the future,” Eamon O’Brien, executive director of the Sonoma Land Trust, posted.

The corridor is vital to maintain species and genetic diversity for a wide variety of wildlife, according to the land trust, which has been a major benefactor of the wildlife corridor program since 2012.

“What’s at stake is ground zero for one of the most important wildlife corridors in the region.” O’Brien wrote.

A 2015 analysis of the SDC’s role in maintaining and expanding the wildlife corridor “found that much of the northern portion of SDC has high estimates for landscape permeability and is expected to allow for free passage of wildlife if left undisturbed.”

Housing and the SDC

Of all of the potential uses for the SDC’s campus, affordable housing was specifically targeted as early as 2018, the year the center closed.

Housing has been a perennial sore spot for Sonoma County for decades, starting when Petaluma threw a wet blanket over willy-nilly development with a General Plan in the 1970s — the first ever in the state that survived a Supreme Court challenge.

The 1990 passage of the measure creating Sonoma County’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District and a healthy sales tax to pay for its operations, along with voter-approved urban boundaries directing new development to city infill, clearly announced the county’s intention to remain green and agricultural.

Both the open space tax and urban boundaries were reapproved by voters a few years ago, in spite of heavy pressure by the state and regional authorities, including the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), to boost affordable housing.

California announced its intent to close all state-run developmental centers in 2015, with the SDC the last one to be shuttered in 2018.

In April 2018, the Sonoma County Economic Development Board published the Sonoma County Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy Action Plan, which specifically calls for affordable housing at the SDC site: “The (SDC) presents a prime example site, and the County and partners should continue working with the State to explore options to utilize the SDC for multifamily housing …”

SB 82, signed by the governor in June 2019, amended state codes, stating: “California is experiencing an acute affordable housing crisis. The cost of land significantly limits the development of affordable housing. It is the intent of the Legislature that priority be given to affordable housing in the disposition of the Sonoma Developmental Center state real property.”

Whether this means the land will be provided at little to no cost to a developer has not been disclosed. The statute also declares the intent of the Legislature that “the lands outside the core developed campus and its related infrastructure be preserved as public parkland and open space.”

Angela Nardo-Morgan, a member of the NSVMAC, said, “The three alternatives and protecting the wildlife corridor don’t add up. The California mandate stated protecting the wildlife corridor at SDC requires preventing further developments — problems that will severely impact the wildlife corridor and the community.”

There is no indication that the compatibility of these two objectives has ever received more than a cursory examination at the state, regional, or local levels.

Mixed desires for future uses

Not everyone is against housing. Some steadfastly pursue all affordable housing, a greater percentage of affordable housing, or better design for existing housing projects with more clustering.

Others would like to see automobile-free zones, better preservation of existing buildings, green institutional enterprises, more agricultural uses, and even an Olympiclevel equestrian center.

Some have suggested dedicating the site to improve Sonoma Valley’s tenuous water situation, both surface and groundwater, given that the state has designated Sonoma Valley a critical groundwater area and has called for a plan to not only reduce groundwater losses, but to turn that around and increase levels for the next 50 years.

That groundwater sustainability plan is due to be polished and presented to the state next year.

Next steps

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors will meet on Jan. 25, 2022, at 8:30 a.m., to pick a preferred development scenario, which may be a hybrid of those on the table, or something else entirely.

The California Department of General Services, responsible for disposing of state land and property, is pursuing a concurrent timeline for disposing of the property to a master developer.

Under the current timeline, a Specific Plan and Environmental Impact Report are due to be finalized next summer, with the state then offering the property for sale to interested parties, presumably a master developer.

In a Nov. 29 letter to friends and supporters, the Sonoma Land Trust declared its concerns over the SDC development alternatives.

“The three redevelopment alternatives proposedbySonomaCounty for 1,000+/- new homes and millions of square feet of commercial and “R& D” space do not adequately protect the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor and the health of the surrounding landscapes,” the lead article declares.

Instead of calculating number of houses needed to offset the state’s $100 million cleanup liability, performance standards should be first established for protecting the existing wildlife corridor, that has been put together with decades of planning and hard work.

Future plans also need to embrace “fire preparedness and water quality protection.”

The Land Trust newsletter also highlighted a recent video program by Director Eamon O’Byrne and John McCaull all about the wildlife corridor. It can be viewed at

For more information visit transformsdc. com.