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FEBRUARY 15, 2022 - Environmental review process for the SDC begins

EIR will examine impacts of building between 450 and 1,000 dwellings on the campus
Environmental review process for the SDC begins
A lamppost on the Sonoma Developmental Center campus. Bright ideas for redevelopment of the SDC: Another proposed plan has been released by county planners as the project begins environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act.Photo by Tracy Salcedo

FEBRUARY 15, 2022

By Tracy Salcedo

Permit Sonoma, Sonoma County’s planning agency, has initiated the environmental review process for redevelopment of the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) in Glen Ellen.

The Notice of Preparation (NOP) includes a description of the project and lists the scope of issues to be studied in the environmental impact report (EIR), a central element of the specific plan that will ultimately guide redevelopment of the 955-acre property. This scoping process includes soliciting comments from various agencies with regulatory oversight, as well as from the public.

The NOP, sourced via the state’s California Environmental Quality Act database, also sets out the parameters for submitting comments on the scope of the EIR. The required public scoping meeting has been set for Thursday, Feb. 17, a week after the NOP’s release, and written comments must be submitted by March 25.

What’s in the NOP

The document includes a summary of the process to date and links to resources on the SDC Specific Plan website (sdcspecificplan.com), such as the enabling legislation. It also includes maps showing the property’s location and the planning area. No site plan showing where development would occur on the property is provided.

The meat of the proposed scope for the EIR is in the “Anticipated Development Program,” which focuses on the 180-acre core campus and describes the types of development that can occur there.

The “housing development program” includes 450 to 1,000 residential units, including market-rate and affordable housing “that reflects the needs of the Sonoma County community and workforce.” Single- family, multifamily, “missing middle,” and senior housing are all mentioned, as well as co-housing and shelter for the unhoused.

The “non-housing development program” includes “institutional, office, research and development, and other creative uses focused on sustainability and climate-focused enterprises, organizations, and businesses.” Restaurants and cafes, a hotel and event space, and community services such as a museum, a community center, and an emergency command center are possible uses. The NOP does not include estimated square footage or job creation numbers, which have been part of previous plans.

The proposal calls for development of “green space” on the campus, including buffers for the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor and wildfire. It also identifies the potential for “creation of a new vehicular route” connecting Arnold Drive to Highway 12. “Adaptive reuse and new construction of existing historic contributing buildings such as the Main Building, Sonoma House and key buildings along view corridors,” and integration of “climate resilient and multimodal infrastructure,” such as new streets, bikeways, a microgrid, and a recycled water plant are incorporated.

The NOP also addresses the 750 acres of open space surrounding the core campus, and requires development of policies to “govern the retention and preservation” of those natural lands, which encompass Fern Lake, Lake Suttonfield, Camp Via, and the historic Eldridge Cemetery.

The environmental impacts of the proposed redevelopment that must be addressed in the EIR include “aesthetics, air quality, biological resources, cultural resources, energy, geology/soils, greenhouse gas emissions, hazards & hazardous materials, hydrology/water quality, land use/planning, noise, population/ housing, public services, transportation, tribal cultural resources, utilities/ service systems, [and] wildfire.”

Background

Release of the NOP brought clarity to the big question that was left unanswered after the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors hearing on Jan. 25: How many dwelling units would be built on the one-time home for persons with developmental disabilities, which has been vacant since 2018?

At the hearing, Permit Sonoma presented a proposal to develop 1,000 housing units and create 1,000 jobs on the campus. About 50 people spoke in the hearing, including Arthur Dawson, chair of the North Sonoma Valley Municipal Advisory Council (NSVMAC), who submitted a letter on behalf of the community calling for reducing the number of dwellings to 450, citing impacts on traffic, natural and cultural resources, and the rural character of the surrounding community of Glen Ellen. The NSVMAC letter was supported by a petition signed by more than 1,600 individuals, as well as a number of community groups and the City of Sonoma, and garnered the unanimous endorsement of the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission on Feb. 8.

Several supervisors voiced support for evaluating a housing range of 450 to 700 units, as proposed by Supervisor Susan Gorin, in the EIR. But because the board did not formally vote on Gorin’s numbers, it was unclear exactly what would be studied in the environmental impact report.

CEQA and the EIR

Glen Ellen’s Vicki Hill, a landuse planner who serves on the Planning Advisory Team working with Permit Sonoma to develop the specific plan, presented a primer on the EIR process at the Glen Ellen Forum’s Feb. 7 meeting. The process is guided by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and requires county planners and the project’s consultants, Dyett & Bhatia, to examine the “significant” environmental impacts of the proposed SDC project, as well as how those impacts can be mitigated. The idea is to “prevent significant, avoidable environmental damage by requiring changes in projects” and to “provide opportunities for other agencies and the public to review and comment,” Hill explained in notes provided to the Kenwood Press.

In addition to the primary proposal from county planners, the EIR must examine alternatives that meet most of the project objectives but also reduce environmental impacts, including a “no project alternative,” which the NOP says will “evaluate the environmental impacts should the Board of Supervisors not adopt the Specific Plan.” Ultimately, the CEQA requires the EIR to identify “an environmentally superior” alternative that would result in the least adverse environmental impacts when compared to the proposed project, Hill said.

What happens next

During the scoping period initiated by the NOP, state and county agencies, such as Sonoma County Regional Parks, CAL FIRE, and Caltrans, will review and comment on the proposed project. Community organizations and members of the public can also comment on what the EIR should encompass. Stakeholders can recommend “alternatives, environmental issues, methodologies, mitigation measures, and environmental thresholds to use in the EIR analysis,” Hill explained. Comments can be submitted in writing through March 25, or at a virtual public scoping meeting set for Thursday, Feb. 17, at 5:30 p.m.

Release of the NOP also marks the start of the “administrative record,” Hill explained. This is important because, while comments submitted prior to this step are not required to be addressed, EIR preparers must consider scoping comments in the EIR process, she said.

“That’s why it’s important to respond to the NOP and submit scoping comments,” Hill told more than 45 people attending the Forum meeting. “It doesn’t matter if you submitted environmental concerns earlier in the specific plan process. These comments need to be resubmitted in response to the NOP.”

Tips for making scoping comments

Hill also provided tips for stakeholders submitting comments on the scope of the EIR. Focus on specific aspects of the report itself, she advised, “not on whether you like or dislike the project.” She provided examples of specifics that should be addressed, including impacts on wildlife, traffic, consistency with land-use policies, noise, and light.

Other items stakeholders can address include the alternatives that should be studied in the EIR, such as projects with reduced density; methodologies used in the EIR analysis; study area boundaries (the boundaries of the affected environment); “environmental thresholds” used to establish criteria for determining the significance of impacts; mitigation measures; and informational sources or studies that should be consulted.

To download a PDF version of the NOP, visit https://ceqanet.opr.ca.gov/2022020222. Written comments should be submitted to Brian Oh, Comprehensive Planning Manager, Permit Sonoma, 2550 Ventura Ave., Santa Rosa, CA 95403; [email protected] Call Oh’s direct line, (707) 565-1931, with questions. To learn more about the SDC Specific Plan, visit sdcspecificplan.com.

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