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Stakeholders respond to Notice of Preparation for the SDC

Stakeholders respond to Notice of Preparation for the SDC
The Jim Berkland Bridge in Glen Ellen at the entrance to the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC). Transportation impact on this two lane road may be one of the many items studied in the drafting of an Environmental Impact Report, the next step in the planning for the future of the SDC campus.Photo by Paul Goguen

By Tracy Salcedo

The Kenwood Press asked community members and leaders of local organizations who’ve been intimately engaged in the specific planning process for the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) property for comments on the just-released Notice of Preparation (NOP) for an environmental review. Required under the California Environmental Quality Act, the document, which marks initiation of the administrative record and is the first step in developing an environmental impact report (EIR), is outlined in the accompanying story.

“Sonoma Land Trust wholeheartedly supports the direction given by Supervisor Gorin (and supported by other supervisors) to develop 450 to 750 housing units with a substantial allocation for affordable housing. Only this range will enable the County to meet the legislative mandate to provide for both the permanent protection of natural resources and the creation of affordable housing,” wrote the land trust’s executive director, Eamon O’Byrne, in an email.

But, O’Byrne continued, “Despite the Board’s guidance, we were shocked to see the upper range of 1,000 units included, which would require building an environmentally damaging new road. The Environmental Impact Report must provide the analysis needed for the Board to adopt the density range recommended by Supervisor Gorin, other supervisors, and the community. We are concerned that DGS [California’s Department of General Services] may be insisting on higher housing numbers and thus thwarting any attempt to align the project with protecting an irreplaceable wildlife corridor.”

“So where’s the proposed project in this NOP document?” asked Meg Beeler, president of the board of directors of Sonoma Mountain Preservation. According to the NOP, the EIR will “evaluate potential cumulative and growth-inducing effects of the proposed project and alternatives to the project,” but only a “specific plan project direction” is included, she observed. “You can’t do an EIR without a defined project. The supervisors didn’t vote on what the project was. Is this even legal?”

Land-use planner Vicki Hill, who serves on the county’s Planning Advisory Team, identified several critical missing pieces in the NOP, noting there was no mention of the amount of job creation, nor was there an estimate of proposed non-residential square footage, and no site plan was included showing where different types of development on the campus would occur. This information was part of the project description presented to the Board of Supervisors on Jan. 25 but was excluded from the NOP, she said.

“How can anyone comment without having at least this basic information?” Hill asked. “The limited information in the NOP is not useful, especially for responsible and trustee agencies who are tasked with identifying potential EIR issues without ever seeing a draft site plan.”

The lack of a site plan “may be particularly troublesome for the neighborhoods adjacent to and south of the SDC property, where residents’ small homes abut the SDC campus and they don’t have any idea what type or how close new uses will be developed,” she added.

“Sonoma Ecology Center will be submitting a detailed request that the EIR cover a number of impacts, primarily related to streams, wildlife, overall biodiversity, water resources, and climate/carbon impacts,” wrote Richard Dale, the ecology center’s executive director. “For example, we may request that the EIR estimate reductions in wild animal use of the pinch point and larger open space areas, as a result of proposed pedestrian and bike trails, domestic animals, landscape maintenance activities, the proposed new road, and lighting. Or that it analyze impacts of the project on groundwater, interconnected surface water, groundwater-dependent ecosystems, and surface water, such as Roulette Springs and the site’s three perennial streams.” Dale noted the ecology center’s “detailed letter,” when available, will be posted on the ecology center’s website.

Bean Anderson, writing on behalf of the Glen Ellen Historical Society (GEHS), said the society “strongly objects” to the proposed project and expressed disappointment that the guiding principles described in the NOP “completely ignore historic preservation of the Sonoma Developmental Center and its 130-year history as one of the leading institutions for the care of people with disabilities. Respect for the role it played, the services it provided, and its legacy of care should be part of any plan.”

The GEHS also lamented a lack of specific planning for a museum and visitor center to preserve the memories and history of the site (a museum is mentioned as part of the non-residential program). “Indeed, the current plan calls for destroying most of the buildings even though the majority could be repurposed, thus saving money and significantly reducing the environmental damage of new construction,” Anderson wrote. “The rehabilitation of significant buildings and the historic preservation of artifacts, libraries, cemeteries, and oral histories are essential parts for telling our story, learning from the past, and shaping our future.”

“I’ll note some good things,” wrote Bonnie Brown, who is affiliated with the SDC Campus Project but was responding as an individual. “Greenhouse gas emissions are added to the list of environmental effects. Co-housing and sheltering for the unhoused are mentioned. The lower figure for housing is now 450.” She also liked the idea of looking into the site’s hydrology, since “repurposing the old water supply system would be a bonus to the plan, to get off of Sonoma’s water supply and provide emergency water to Sonoma Valley in an emergency.”

Brown did express reservations about creating a new east/west road linking Arnold Drive and Highway 12, calling it “bizarre.” She referenced the constraints imposed by homes and businesses on Highway 12 as it passes through The Springs, and that traffic along both routes “are at a snail’s pace during evacuations.” Because Madrone Road already connects Arnold Drive to the highway, “I do not see any purpose to a new road that goes through the open space and historic agricultural land,” she wrote.

“I think it will be a long time before the issues around this complex site will be resolved,” wrote Kathleen Miller, former president of the SDC’s Parent Hospital Association and mother of a one-time resident. “Unfortunately there exists a need for community settings (for persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities/IDD) — especially for some regional center for clients with behavior needs — that are very much right now. SDC can hopefully provide solutions for some IDD in the future but the need is current.”