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Supervisors back North Sonoma Valley MAC’s vision for SDC

Supervisors back North Sonoma Valley MAC’s vision for SDC
Harney Green and surrounding buildings at the Sonoma Developmental Center.Photo by Paul Goguen

By Christian Kallen

Capping a largely critical two hours of public comment at their Jan 25 meeting, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors opted not to accept a preferred alternative for the future of the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC), but to treat their lengthy consideration as an “informational” meeting and not a decisive one.

While the official timeline of the process, which Permit Sonoma’s planner Brian Oh referred to repeatedly, projected such an agreement, the board balked at giving the department its imprimatur, and allowed public and supervisor preferences to chart a path forward for the next step in the process, the development of a preferred plan to undergo public review and a preliminary environmental impact study. The planning department’s “proposed alternative,” which was arrived at following extensive objection to the three alternatives released in November 2021, barely received any attention at all from the board. This revised alternative included between 900 and 1,000 housing units, about a quarter of them deed-restricted affordable housing, and a new road from Arnold Drive to Highway 12 to help move traffic from the core campus to primary transportation routes, among other adjustments.

But the new proposal did not represent a new direction for visioning of the SDC or even a substantial refinement of the earlier alternatives, according to its critics, but instead synthesized the three alternatives into a single proposal, as unpopular as its predecessors had been.

“A thousand homes and jobs on the site is not building small,” said Glen Ellen resident Vicki Hill during the board of supervisors meeting. She dismissed as disingenuous the county’s comparison of capacity from the SDC’s peak years — 40 years ago, when it had 3,700 residents and 1,900 employees — to today’s current planning.

In many ways the public’s response, and the board’s own reticence, was a result foretold by the Jan. 19 meeting of the North Sonoma Valley Municipal Advisory Council (NSVMAC), when MAC members and public voices roasted Permit Sonoma for its distinctionwithout- a-difference alternatives.

“I just wanted to very briefly express my personal disappointment with the Permit Sonoma update, which they are unfortunately calling the ‘fourth alternative.’ It feels like they’re playing a little bit of doublespeak there,” said the MAC chairman, Arthur Dawson, at the time. “The RFP (request for proposal) under which they’re doing their work calls for a specific plan to represent the community’s vision … That specific plan must be compatible in scale with the surrounding community, and it’s supposed to include meaningful and comprehensive community engagement throughout the process.”

But, he added, “virtually everybody that I speak to in this community feels like that has not happened and that their updated plan does not fit the guiding principles.”

Others were less diplomatic. “I don’t know what to do about a government agency that seems out of control and doesn’t respond to its citizens,” said Larry Davis. “I think we have an issue here that goes deeper than just the SDC.”

His frustration was not an outlier. “I want to say is that we are a democracy and I think we need to let our elected officials know that we are organized and we vote,” said Claire Price, basing that warning on “how Permit Sonoma has behaved towards the public.”

Supervisor Susan Gorin tried to tamp down the negative sentiment, while asserting she would be her district’s voice at the board’s Jan. 25 meeting. “I will not shirk my responsibility to reflect some of the comments that I’ve heard, but I will lavish you with praise. You’ve done exactly what you need to do as a MAC, which is find your voice and lend your voices to the topic at hand.”

The “voice” she referred to was the Jan. 5 letter the MAC sent to the board, which formalized their objections to the housing-heavy “alternatives” that Permit Sonoma proposed. As it turned out, that NSVMAC letter won almost unanimous endorsement from the Board of Supervisors on Jan. 25 and was proffered as a model of what a preferred plan should be going forward.

After listening to the extended public comment from her constituents and others, Gorin finally revealed her own vision for the SDC campus during supervisors’ final comments: “Now’s the time,” she said.

Among her recommendations: makeing immediate the formal preservation of the 700-plus acres of open space with “permanent annexation” to Jack London State Historic Park and Sonoma Valley Regional Park; requesting state infrastructure funds to support the campus’s necessary upgrades; move toward an enterprise, conference, and convention center model; prohibit vacation rentals and, if possible, prohibition of fractional home ownership and limitations on second homes; move Dunbar Elementary School from its present location to the SDC campus; and facilitate the wildlife corridor with “permeable” design in any development.

She also set a target of 450–700 housing units, splitting the difference between the NSVMAC’s preferred number (450) and Permit Sonoma’s proposed 900–1,000.

“That’s a step in the right direction and evidence that the MAC letter has made an impression,” said Dawson following the meeting. He suggested that further study in the environmental impact report (EIR) might result in an even lower number, when all factors are taken into account. “Hopefully we’ll have enough good info to make some solid decisions on what kinds of trade-offs will best balance human needs with the environment.”

The next stage in the process is for Permit Sonoma to craft a plan based on the board’s response and the NSVMAC’s letter (endorsed by over 1,400 petition signers as of the Jan. 25 meeting). But the two public workshops planned for the next stage, tentatively scheduled for March and April, may be at least as contentious as the recent board and MAC reviews, if the planning department’s track record in crafting an acceptable plan is any indication.