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Sonoma Land Trust Addresses Community Advocacy on the Sonoma Developmental Center

Panelists describe process, timeline, protections for wildlife corridor in runup to board meeting
Sonoma Land Trust Addresses Community Advocacy on the  Sonoma Developmental Center
The Sonoma Developemental Center in Eldridge, CA.Photo by Paul Goguen

By Tracy Salcedo

In a webinar hosted with the Sonoma Land Trust (SLT) and partners, panelists broke down the planning process for redevelopment of the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC), described best practices for community members seeking to express their opinions to decision-makers, and identified issues critical to ensuring the SDC Specific Plan reflects community input and protects the site’s natural values.

Titled “The Future of SDC: A Community Workshop on Planning Law and Public Engagement,” the workshop’s goals were to educate and empower stakeholders prior to a meeting of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Jan. 25, where it’s anticipated the board will select a preferred alternative for redevelopment of the site. Organizers encouraged stakeholders to request an extension of the planning process timeline so an alternative that adequately protects the site’s natural resources, including the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor, can be developed.

The webinar, held via Zoom with Spanish translation, was attended by about 200 people and featured speakers from the SLT, the North Sonoma Valley Municipal Advisory Council, the Glen Ellen Forum, the Sonoma Ecology Center, Sonoma Mountain Preservation, and the Glen Ellen Historical Society.

Time and Outcomes

Formalizing permanent protection of the SDC’s open space, which encompasses the wildlife corridor, is one of two “crucial” environmental outcomes SLT executive director Eamon O’Byrne emphasized. The supervisors should endorse a specific plan that “protects permeability of the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor” and also completes the transfer of 750 acres of “high value” open space surrounding the Glen Ellen campus to state or county park agencies.

“Wildlife is not an amenity, but is vital for the overall health of the community,” O’Byrne said.

It’s also “not unreasonable” for the supervisors to go back to the state and ask for a “reset of the timetable” and the creation of a “fourth alternative” that better protects both natural values and the vision and guiding principles supported by the community, O’Byrne said.

In addition, O’Byrne noted the “unequivocal consensus” among stakeholders that redevelopment of the “built portion” of campus should include “equitable and inclusive affordable housing” and services for people with disapbilities. He also pointed out that the density of development required to make the project economically profitable should not be based on the costs of repairing infrastructure on the site, which has been neglected under state ownership. The state is asking the community to bear the burden of the clean-up costs, O’Byrne said, and that’s “not fair.”

The Process Explained

Why is the meeting on Jan. 25 so important? There needs to be “gut check” with regard to the project’s timeline, explained John McCaull, land acquisition director for the land trust. The board hasn’t, as a whole, discussed the fate of the SDC in many months and is “potentially” going to adopt a project description and “kick off ” the environmental impact report (EIR) process.

And why is the EIR important? Tamara Galanter, an attorney with Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP who specializes in environmental law, provided a process overview. The EIR, she explained, is required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and will analyze the environmental impacts of the county’s preferred proposal, along with mitigation measures that would reduce, lessen, or compensate for impacts on the site. The density of development proposed in the three alternatives presented by Permit Sonoma in November 2021, which call for creation of between 990 and 1,290 dwelling units on the 180-acre central campus, plus a hotel/resort and commercial space, will create significant environmental impacts affecting the wildlife corridor and the surrounding rural community of Glen Ellen.

When the supervisors meet on Jan. 25, they can choose to move ahead with one of the alternatives as presented, or with one of those alternatives with modifications, or with a new alternative, but based on “rumors and mumblings” shared among stakeholders, “it sounds like the three alternatives are dead on arrival,” Galanter observed. She anticipates Permit Sonoma will present a new proposal for the supervisors “to bless and to adopt” at the meeting.

The hope is that the proposal endorsed by the board looks like what the greater Sonoma Valley community has envisioned for the SDC. Regardless, the preferred plan will be difficult to change significantly once adopted. “The message is no, don’t adopt … do not take action,” unless the new proposal looks like what people want, Galanter said.

According to the present timeline, drafts of the EIR and Specific Plans should be available for public review in June or July 2022; the final EIR and specific plan prepared by September 2022; and all approvals, including the supervisors’, in place by December 2022. Galanter said this timeline was “incredibly ambitious … for a project of this scope.” What would usually take a year and a half to complete, Sonoma County plans to do in 11 months.

What happens if the board of supervisors opts to move ahead with one of the existing, much maligned alternatives? Galanter, Mc-Caull, and O’Byrne all noted there will be other opportunities for public comment and modification as the process proceeds, but in responding to queries from attendees, they addressed the elephant in the room. Filing a lawsuit to address legal failings in the preferred plan would be a last resort, they agreed. Lawsuits can drag on for a long time, O’Byrne observed, and time is not good for the site.

“We want the county to do the right thing in the first instance,” Galanter said.

Performance standards for wildlife corridor protection

One of the biggest issues for the SLT, the Sonoma Ecology Center, and other stakeholders, is the impact dense redevelopment of the SDC will have on the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor. The land trust is working to develop “performance standards” that would provide a minimum level of protection for that vital resource, McCaull told attendees.

The studies currently underway will help establish “thresholds of significance” that could be used in the EIR to protect not only the corridor, but also streams and other natural resources. These thresholds are “quantitative” values that support “qualitative” values: For example, to support the qualitative goal of establishing a buffer between housing and the wildlife corridor, a quantitative value would specify how many feet should be included in that buffer.

Tanya Diamond of Pathways for Wildlife and Jennifer Michaud, a wildlife biologist with Prunuske Chatham Inc., described the work they are doing to establish quantitative values with regard to the SDC’s habitat and natural resources, including the impacts of increased lighting, noise, and traffic that dense development would introduce.

Effective communication

Following presentations by the various partner/stakeholder groups, including the Glen Ellen Forum and Sonoma Mountain Preservation, Ariana Rickard, the land trust’s public policy and funding program manager, offered advice on how to communicate with elected officials.

In the short term, the focus of comments should emphasize the importance of protecting the SDC’s environmental integrity and extending the timeline so a fourth alternative can be developed.

In the long term, however, it’s important to develop a relationship with the decisionmakers. The point is that stakeholders need to apply “endless pressure endlessly,” Rickard said.

Her advice for letter writers: Begin by stating your purpose and the action you’d like to see taken. Less is more; try to keep your letters to a single page. Be personal and local. Be courteous and persistent. Do your research and present background information as needed. Observe political titles. If you’re making an oral statement on Jan. 25, prepare your comments carefully and watch your time. And always end with a thank-you.

You can watch the webinar at www.youtube.com/watch?v=MHexgRDa7EM. Talking points will be posted on the land trust’s Transform SDC site (https://transformsdc.com). For more information on the specific planning process, visit www.sdcspecificplan.com. Another source of information about redevelopment of the SDC, including calls to action, is www.eldridgeforall.org.

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