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North Sonoma Valley MAC targets housing emphasis in SDC planning

Advisory council letter rejects ~1,000-unit plans for former developmental center
North Sonoma Valley MAC targets housing emphasis in SDC planning
SDC signage on Arnold Drive.Photo by Paul Goguen

By Christian Kallen

Community concerns are mounting as a presentation to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on the fate of the former Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) nears its calendar date. On Tuesday, Jan. 25, the board is to hear a presentation on a “Draft Preferred Plan” for the future of the property. The plan may be one of three alternatives released in early November, a combination of the three alternatives, or a new alternative altogether, based on public input over the past several weeks.

The three county alternatives for the future of the 180-acre core campus, including the buildings and infrastructure that supported the developmental center, all included about 1,000 housing units, combined commercial and residential facilities, and a luxury hotel for the purpose of bringing income to the property — proposals supporting the state’s goal that redevelopment of the SDC be fiscally sustainable.

But “long-term fiscal sustainability” is just one of 10 guiding principles outlined for the property at the outset of the three-year planning process; the others include affordable housing, environmental sustainability, car-free circulation, diversity, balanced development, historic preservation, and open space conservation.

Refocusing the county on those other principles has been the emphasis of recent efforts of the North Sonoma Valley Municipal Advisory Council (NSVMAC). Of the local councils, committees, and agencies that have met recently to discuss the SDC alternatives, it has spent the most time and productive energy on the topic. The NSVMAC, like the Springs MAC and the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission (SVCAC), is an advisory body only, so councilmembers’ votes carry no legal weight. But the NSVMAC does enjoy a direct conduit to the board through its sponsor, First District Supervisor Susan Gorin.

At its Dec. 15 meeting, the North Sonoma Valley MAC appointed an ad hoc committee to write an official statement to the board of supervisors. Three weeks later, on Jan. 5, that committee — Matthew Dickey, Angela Nardo-Morgan, and Kate Eagles — presented its work to a special session of the NSVMAC for review and approval. The three-page letter, addressed to the supervisors, outlined the council’s priorities for the SDC Specific Plan and overtly rejected the alternatives proposed in November 2021. The advisory council also asked to delay the board’s decision for at least a month, “until after a new alternative reflective of site constraints and community input is developed.”

“It’s an amazingly well-done summary of where people’s thinking has been and is,” said NSVMAC chair Arthur Dawson about the ad hoc committee’s letter. Though he said he was happy enough with it to approve the draft version without change, the letter was opened first to questions from the other council members, then public comment and an on-the-spot editing process managed by the MAC’s county rep- resentative, Hannah Whitman.

The three-page letter, which changed very little following the council’s review, is straightforward about its rejection of the three alternatives proposed so far. “The alternatives do not reflect the themes heard over and over in multiple Valley-wide workshops regarding the appropriate size and scale of development, and adequate protection of the wildlife corridor and surrounding open space,” the letter concludes. “None of the current alternatives reflect the many environmental constraints on the site, nor do any strike a balance between financial interests, affordable housing, and environmental and community well-being.”

Asked to identify the MAC’s objections to the three alternatives on the table, Dawson told the Kenwood Press, “To put it in a nutshell, it’s the number of housing units. There’s a number of issues, but this really is the core — the overdevelopment of that site.” Though he said a lesser number of units, around 450, would be widely viewed as acceptable, a larger number of units and people makes every other problem bigger: traffic, infrastructure, fire safety, emergency evacuation, and, especially, the environmental impact.

“If you lower the numbers, then across the board, everything looks better,” said Dawson. “That’s the point that I’m going to keep making.”

Two years into the development of the county’s SDC Specific Plan, which would act as a planning guide for any future development in the designated area, the process is at a turning point. In the Jan. 5 MAC meeting, Supervisor Gorin said she had that day spoken with Tennis Wick, director of Permit Sonoma, who told her planners are still working on “significant revisions on a preferred alternative” for the Jan. 25 board meeting, which she hoped would be acceptable to the board and the community.

The three-page letter from the NSVMAC, along with a nine-page appendix outlining the MAC’s position in more granular detail, was distributed to local, county, and state officials on Jan. 6. Other forms of public comment are being collected now, including letters and feedback from community engagement meetings, including the Sonoma Land Trust-hosted workshop on Jan. 8 (see story on page 9).

“There’s such a strong tide moving for something new and transformative, which is what everybody says they want there,” Dawson said. “Here’s our opportunity; now’s the time.”