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Stakeholders weigh in on scope of the EIR for the SDC

Housing, fire safety, and more addressed in Permit Sonoma meeting
Stakeholders weigh in on scope of the EIR for the SDC
Pipes and equipment at the SDC’s power plant.Photo by Paul Goguen

By Tracy Salcedo

Planners with Permit Sonoma, which has issued a Notice of Preparation for an environmental impact report (EIR) addressing redevelopment of the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC), took public comment on the scope of the EIR in a virtual meeting on Feb. 17.

The meeting was required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and is part of a 45-day comment period during which public agencies and the public themselves can comment on the EIR’s scope. Written comments will be accepted through 5 p.m. on March 25.

About 60 people attended the meeting, which began with a project overview presented by planner Eduardo Hernandez. In addition to covering the EIR process, Hernandez and Brian Oh, project planner for the SDC’s Specific Plan, presented the list of concerns CEQA requires the EIR address, including aesthetics, air quality, biological and cultural resources, energy, greenhouse gas emissions, hydrology and water quality, noise, housing, transportation, and wildfire.

In the meeting, planners asked attendees to comment on the scope of the EIR and asked, “Do you have any information on environmental resources that would be helpful for Permit Sonoma to have?”

Public comment focused on elements of the project proposal included in the Notice of Preparation (NOP), which calls for building between 450 and 1,000 dwelling units and an unspecified amount of commercial space on the 180-acre campus. Most speakers offered feedback on housing numbers and plans to safely evacuate in the event of wildfire.

John Stalcup, a 24-year resident of Glen Ellen, urged planners to examine how an additional 1,000 to 4,000 residents would get out of Glen Ellen when the next fire occurs, “short of expanding Highway 12 and Arnold Drive to four lanes.” He also asked for data showing whether groundwater in the Valley can support that kind of population growth, given current drought conditions.

Without managing for fire safety and water resiliency, Stalcup said plans for the SDC, as proposed, “are irresponsible and potentially homicidal … We need to look at water and safety. Those things should drive any plans that the county and the community accept.”

Steve Akre, chief of the Sonoma Valley Fire District, called roadways and traffic “key areas of concern” given wildfire “will happen again at some point,” and cited the need for new studies on how existing communities and a new community at the SDC can be kept safe given that inevitability.

Akre also pointed out that workforce housing is a key concern for the fire district, given its reliance on “homegrown” firefighters and volunteers. “We struggle to be able to keep our people housed in the valley,” he said.

Several commenters requested the EIR examine the impact of building the minimum number of dwelling units proposed rather than the maximum, while others endorsed building the maximum. Given the current affordable housing shortage in Sonoma Valley and countywide, those speakers and others requested the EIR examine alternatives that increase the percentage of affordable housing units above 25% of the total, and suggested a housing land trust model to accomplish that goal. Ideally, Sonoma’s Josette Eichar told planners, all residential units at the SDC should be affordable because market-rate housing offers “no community benefit.”

The proposed project’s impact on the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor, which many stakeholders believe is an invaluable natural resource, was also a topic of comment. Lighting, noise, and “permeability” on the campus should be among the impacts examined and mitigated, commenters said.

One speaker, however, asserted the opposite: Instead of accommodating “black bears and mountain lions” traversing the property, such movement should be discouraged and the safety of new residents prioritized.

David Eichar was one of several commenters who requested the EIR look at the “cumulative effects” of redevelopment of the SDC in combination with other proposed developments in Sonoma Valley, including a housing project planned in El Verano and another proposed for Hanna Boys Center. Nancy Kirwan echoed his concern, noting, “Clearly there are too many developments already being planned [and] this is a serious problem.” Development doesn’t occur in a bubble, she said.

Alice Horowitz of Glen Ellen also voiced concern about cumulative effects of development, as well as the lack of a “site plan” for the EIR, noting the information provided was “skimpy” and that people “can’t make meaningful comments on what we can’t see.” She also asked why every alternative presented by planners over the last several months has included 1,000 homes. “That number seems to be baked into the cake,” she said. “Who’s baking the cake?”

Other speakers encouraged planners to look at how repurposing existing buildings on the campus could reduce environmental impacts. A professional “adaptive reuse analysis” could show which buildings would be candidates for repurposing, said Tom Conlon. “Demolishing needs to be examined,” he noted, because the release of “embodied carbon” in the existing buildings would have negative environmental consequences.

“The greenest building is one that’s already built,” observed another speaker. And Bonnie Brown of the SDC Campus Project expressed outrage that her group’s proposal, which would repurpose five existing buildings on the campus as cohousing, and the Glen Ellen Historical Society’s proposal for preservation of historic buildings, were both “disregarded” in the NOP. The oversight, she said, is a “slap in the face for this community.”

The impacts of increased traffic and mitigating the greenhouse gasses traffic generates was another focus. Several speakers requested public transportation options be examined in the EIR.

Among the other suggestions, commenters recommended planners remove a hotel/convention center from the proposed plan; study an alternative that includes a new roadway connecting Arnold Drive and Highway 12, an idea some support and others oppose; and look into whether a school should be established on the site given some new residents are bound to be grade-school-aged children.

Another theme was how reuse of the SDC could positively impact climate change. “Think globally, act locally. Global problems won’t be solved except on a local level,” one commenter observed. Along those lines, speakers recommended planners study how green construction elements, such as solar power, heat pumps, microgrids, and hydraloop graywater systems could be incorporated into the redevelopment.

Oh thanked attendees for their input and said planners “will keep doing outreach.” Questions and comments can be directed to Oh at [email protected]

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