Visions of Valleyville: The Town to Come
Guest editorial by Will Shonbrun
The game and how it’s played
The people who lived here in the Sonoma Valley many centuries before Old World immigrant ancestors (i.e., the white man) moved in did not think of the land as a commodity. That was a newfound concept to them. Land, places, had value to Native American people that lived in the North Bay, of course, but for what it — a particular place — provided. Could be water, food, shelter and whatever other bounty a place had to offer. The weather and terrain were factors to entice people to live there; perhaps the perceived spirituality of a place would matter; and why not just the sheer beauty of it, and the way it made one feel just to look at it and be in it?
The Native Americans didn’t trade for land; it wasn’t in their version of commerce. They bartered and traded, wagered and probably took what wasn’t theirs from time to time, just like early Americans have done since their arrival. But if they considered the land sacred — after all, it was the source of everything they needed to survive — then how could it be sold? How could one own what was holy and given by a spiritual benefactor? Such a place is, by its nature, sacred.
The place named the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC), historically called not so nice names, is comprised of roughly 945 acres and sits at the base of Sonoma Mountain in a strikingly scenic place. The campus of the SDC is about 200 acres, situated mostly on the valley floor and lower hills, and undeveloped wildlands rise up the mountain, encompassing about 745 acres. Undeveloped, at least so far. But it’s a good bet the state of California wants a steep price for (what it considers) its land.
Land in Sonoma Valley, home to vineyards and wineries and mountaintop mansions, is preciously high. To the state, the SDC land is just a huge, juicy, money pot for the taking. The nature of the place itself, its wildness and diversity, will not account for much in the bargaining process. Anyway, it’s basically the lower, developed sections that developers (housing and commercial) will be looking to chomp down on. It won’t even need much landscaping as it’s already there.
And most importantly, in the disposition of the land in question, the state runs the show, not the county or its many agencies, or nonprofits, or coalitions of stakeholders. The state made the rules of the game (quite a while back) by requiring all submitted plans for land use be based on its dictated criteria. These three major requirements were that the land had to produce revenue, that it had to have housing, and that a portion of it would remain in conservation and ostensibly undeveloped.
To ensure its dictates, the state and the county contracted with a consultancy firm to draw up three plans for the projected land use. And lo and behold, all three plans conformed to decreed rules. These include: a hotel/resort; marketrate homes, with some percentage (about 25%) “affordable;” and an unspecified number of acres to be left undeveloped. To say there will be winners and losers in this game of fortune is an understatement. The state will come out on top; the county will clean up in land management through taxes, licensing, permits, etc., and the public will get the shaft.
It’s my contention that this was a rigged game from the start. Despite years of public meetings to encourage “public input,” the final three consultants’ plans include little to nothing of what the public wanted. These were, among other things, a protected wildlife corridor, a predominance of affordable workforce housing, well-paying jobs, and nonprofit institutions focusing on education and research. This is not remotely what the state and the county are now promoting. Once again, the public — the residents of Sonoma Valley — have been played in nothing more than a slick game of bait-and-switch.
The plans being offered feature (at least one) high-end hotel and resort, market-rate and up housing, an indeterminate number of commercial enterprises, no secured wildlife corridor, and for all we know, a casino and a golf course. It is all about the revenue, we are now told; accept it or get lost. So much for political, bureaucratic, honest brokers.
A vision of the future
Once humans move en masse onto the already developed lower sections, they will gradually move up the lower hillsides and fill those in. It’s just what humans do. The SDC, now defunct, is situated in Eldridge, labeled as a consensusdesignated place by the state of California. Over the years its population ranged from 1,200 to 2,400 people, and it’s under the jurisdiction of state senator Mike McGuire and assemblymember Cecillia Aguiar Curry and Congressional representative Mike Thompson. Eldridge even had its own post office and, at one time, public schools.
Perhaps the name of the place will stay “Eldridge” or be changed to another town name. Seems irrelevant to me, but that it will become another small town, like Glen Ellen or Kenwood, is more to the point. Humans have a way of building towns wherever they go, and this wouldn’t be the first time. Will this be years ahead? For sure. But in my view, it’s inevitable.
The only way people have been able to curb their appetite for profit through selling land is to make some portion of it off-limits — conservation and preservation of certain tracts, such as state and regional parks. Jack London State Historic Park is adjacent to the upper region of the SDC. Those acres could easily be incorporated into Jack London and be spared commercialization and burgeoning residential development. The state could do it by decree as it did once before in that same region. That can’t cost much as they own it already. But it’s not going to happen. That was obvious almost seven years ago when the state decided to close up developmental centers and go out of that business.
The SDC lands will become a small town, initially, and it will grow and expand with time, as towns have a habit of doing. There will be housing there — there was before, but of a different nature. The housing will be high-end single-family types with a sprinkling of McMansions on the hills. The putative affordable housing, apartments and such, will be neatly placed out of sight and effectively invisible to the new breed of financially comfortable newcomers. There’ll be at least one high-end resort and hotel and various commercial enterprises and service businesses to … serve the new population. And vehicles and paved roads? One can only imagine that transformation.
So, adios SDC, and buenos dias Valleyville.
A personal tale
There was a time not long ago when a person, maybe accompanied by a dog — though that was frowned upon — could walk up from Arnold Drive and wend his way westward up the SDC mountain land. Following intersecting trails you’d wind up at the upper reservoir, maybe jump in on a hot day and take a rest along the high-grassed bank. Then you could hike up to the big redwood, which probably could accommodate eight to10 people hand-in-hand circling its startlingly massive base, and gawk for a while. Then you could continue your hike to the upper orchards. Depending on the season you might forage apples, see rolling meadows of wildflowers, and remember to watch out for rattlers while keeping an eye on the dog.
Nature is wild up there. People don’t live up there — only the other animals and a diverse forest of trees and plants. There’s an abundance of things to eat if you know some of your flora. There are sources of water on the land and moving streams in the winter. The water probably wouldn’t kill you. The SDC’s open space is conducive to all kinds of wildlife and was one of the last places a person could go to get away from progress and just dig the solace and the quiet of nature.
It reminds one of the old saying that we know the price of everything and the value of nothing. And the newer one: “You pave paradise and put up a parking lot.” So it goes, and I don’t mind that I won’t live to see it.
The Kenwood Press invites readers to submit guest editorials of no more than 1,000 words and reserves the right to edit for space if needed. Guest editorials do not necessarily reflect the views of the newspaper’s editorial staff.