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Sonoma Developmental Center up for sale

State issues RFP for SDC property
Sonoma Developmental Center up for sale
Open space at the former Sonoma Developmental Center’s campus viewed from high above Fern Lake. The California Department of General Services published a request for proposals in May 2022 to sell the property.Photo by Paul Goguen

By Christian Kallen

The state’s Department of General Services (DGS), current custodian of the Eldridge property where the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) and its antecedents have been located for over 130 years, has issued a “Request for Proposals” (RFP) to the development industry in an unexpected and, to local residents, unwelcome next step in outlining a future for the SDC.

The 28-page RFP details the history of the property, the conditions of its availability, the draft terms of Sonoma County’s SDC Specific Plan, the requirements for applying to develop the property, and criteria for choosing the appropriate developer. The RFP was issued on May 17, and a minor addendum was made a week later to correct a date error in the schedule.

Early local response to the RFP focused on the discrepancy between the state’s RFP schedule and the county’s Specific Plan schedule. Though the RFP includes the prerequisite that applicants’ proposals be consistent with the county’s SDC Specific Plan and its Notice of Preparation (NOP) for an environmental impact report (EIR), the state’s timeline has an RFP submittal deadline of July 15; calls for the selection of a buyer a month later, on Aug. 15; and sets the date for execution of an “exclusive negotiation agreement” 30 days after that, on Sept. 15.

Aside from the aggressive timeline, these crucial target dates fall before the final certification of the SDC’s Specific Plan and EIR by the Board of Supervisors, slated for an unspecified date in September. The submittal deadline itself comes prior to the public hearing on a draft EIR and the publication of a final Specific Plan, which makes the RFP’s requirement that the proposals conform to the county’s regulatory process somewhat hollow. The RFP does include a statement indicating the DGS will accept a good-faith effort to comply with a nonyet- final Specific Plan: “For the purposes of the Respondent’s proposal, the Respondent’s schedule should assume that the Specific Plan is approved by September 2022.”

Jennifer Iida, a public information officer for the DGS, denied that there is a disconnect or undue pressure implied by the dates, saying, “DGS solicitation was always intended to be issued before the finalization of the county’s planning process. While there is not an arbitrary date set for the final disposition of the property, DGS is working to adhere to the timelines in the statute as best as possible, given where the county is at in their planning process.”

The creation of a Specific Plan, a document that provides the standards for development within designated parts of the unincorporated county (a Springs Specific Plan has just been released, after some six years of study including public outreach), came about because all parties agree the approximately 945-acre property is a unique and valuable natural and historic resource and should not follow “the traditional state surplus property process,” as the RFP summarizes. The state passed into law an “Authorizing Statute” in 2019 that allowed DGS “to enter into an agreement with the County … for the County to develop a specific plan for the property and manage the land use planning process, integrated with a disposition process for the property to be carried out by DGS.”

In other words, the county and the state were to be partners in the disposition of the property. The basic timeline was set late in 2019 as a three-year period (2020–2022), allowing the county to develop its plans “and provide for robust community engagement in land use planning to facilitate disposition of the property as contemplated by the Authorizing Statute.”

That statute, incidentally, does not give the end of 2022 as a deadline for the transfer of ownership of the property, as Glen Ellen’s Arthur Dawson pointed out.

Bradley Dunn, policy manager for Permit Sonoma, told the Kenwood Press the following: “The State’s disposition process is separate from the County’s work. The SDC Specific Plan is proceeding on time and budget. We expect the Board to vote on the Specific Plan in September. If our Specific Plan is in keeping with our requirements under state law, regardless of who owns the property after the disposition they will be required to comply with the SDC Specific Plan.”

Said Iida, “The RFP anticipates that the state and the awarded proposer will address any differences between a selected buyer’s proposal at the time the County approves a final Specific Plan.”

Vicki Hill, a professional planner (who is not working on this project), underscored Dawson’s concerns. “The State RFP refers potential bidders to the EIR NOP for information about site redevelopment but the NOP has no site plan for the proposed project … The project description will be included in the Draft EIR but that won’t come out for another month.”

But the DGS’s Iida pointed out an even more troubling reality: “The authorizing statute does not set a transfer deadline of December 2022. The reference to three years in the statute would be from the enactment of the budget and is thus a fiscal year, not a calendar year, calculation. Technically, the three years is up at the end of June 2022.”

Dawson, the chair of the North Sonoma Valley Municipal Advisory Council, which drafted a community statement advocating for housing development consistent with the demographic scale of the Glen Ellen-Eldridge axis, is uncomfortable with several other aspects of the state RFP, foremost among them the rated criteria listed for acceptance of a proposal. The 1,000-point scoring checklist includes 400 points for the “experience of the respondent” and 400 points in “benefits to the state,” such as compliance with the deedrestricted special needs housing units and affordability that are part of the state’s development criteria. The remaining 200 points are split between the financial strength of the respondent and how consistent the proposal is with the project description in the county’s environmental NOP and the terms of the authorizing statute.

The high bar for submitting a qualified response is notable. The respondent must have “at least five (5) consecutive years of experience in either developing or redeveloping real estate of a comparable size and complexity” and must have “successfully completed at least five (5) projects of a comparable size and complexity.”

It’s hard to envision any but the largest companies being able to comply with these requirements, given the scale of the proposed SDC redevelopment. “You know, Donald Trump could probably qualify under these requests,” joked Dawson.

Given the stiff requirements for a successful application — and the current state of the SDC campus and its buildings, with considerable, if unspecified, amounts of asbestos and other pollutants in the buildings, deteriorating infrastructure, and dysfunctional utilities — it’s possible that no successful applicant will be found. What then?

“We would, of course, have to determine the best course of action based upon the situation at the time,” said Iida. She also said that the state has no specific price in mind for the property. “The state has not set any expectations on price and the state reserves the right to reject all proposals.”

The DGS spokesperson stated, “From the beginning of this process to the present day, DGS has worked diligently to adhere to the authorizing legislation. We do not anticipate any tension between the statute and our sale process. We would add that if the state simply wanted to get rid of the property, the property could have just been sold in its as-is condition and as originally zoned, but as that would not have benefited Californians, this more robust collaboration between the state and local government was what was legislatively authorized.”

Still, residents of Sonoma Valley, where the development is being planned, remain suspicious of the process, and what result it might bring.

“From the beginning, the community has tried to work collaboratively and be good citizens. It feels like the state has only pretended to go along, because DGS is doing exacting what they intended to do from the beginning,” said Meg Beeler, who has been engaged in the planning process for more than seven years as board chair of Sonoma Mountain Preservation.

“There’s a disconnect between the legislative process, the promises made by state and county officials for a community-driven process, and the DGS process. The DGS is a black hole. This process devours all our energy, and we don’t see results that support state goals for climate resilience, truly affordable housing, and protection of the beautiful open space that actually belongs to the citizens of California.”