Focus on the SDC: Questions, answers, and protests
By Tracy Salcedo
I must start with a correction. The California Department of General Services’s (DGS) Request for Proposals (RFP) soliciting bids from buyers for purchase of the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) contained ambiguous language that I misinterpreted in my opinion piece published and posted on June 1, 2022. The DGS has since clarified that the RFP’s “subject property” is the ~180-acre campus and does not include the surrounding ~750 acres of open space. A link to the revised DGS listing is on sdcspecificplan.com.
An updated article with the correct information was posted online on the Kenwood Press website on June 3, 2022 (https://www.kenwoodpress. com/2022/06/01/focus-on-the-sdcopen- space-and-the-public-trust/). My apologies for any confusion and angst my misread of the RFP may have caused readers. I’ll strive to do better moving forward.
As I’ve thought about why I made the error and how I can avoid doing it again, I’ve realized I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. The longstanding assumption was that the DGS would sell the property as a whole, not piecemeal. When that tree was uprooted in the RFP, I didn’t hear it fall.
I should know better than to make assumptions. I know things change. I’m a journalist; my job is to ask questions.
So I did.
Answers from the DGS
How does the DGS intend to dispose of the ~750 acres of open space that are not part of the RFP?
Here’s the direct answer, provided by the DGS’s public information officer, Jennifer Iida, via email: “Unfortunately, this is part of the state’s budget process and we are unable to speak to this at this time.”
Iida explained that “the disposition of the open space is a separate process [from the disposition of the campus via the RFP], and one that is bound up in the state’s budget process. It has a different critical path, a different ability to be publicly discussed (due to the state budget process).”
What’s the expected timeline for a transfer to state parks, county parks, or another conservation entity? “We still expect the sale and transfer process to be concluded as simultaneously as possible,” Iida wrote.
I also asked about the problematic expectation, asserted over the years by public officials at both the state and county levels, that the DGS intended to dispose of the SDC property in its entirety. Why did that appear to have changed?
“It is an incorrect assumption that our solicitation for the core-campus evidences a change in the plan or prior promises made by DGS,” Iida wrote.
“First, we have never said that the open space would be ‘sold.’ That is why the RFP does not address it — it is off the table with respect to a ‘sale,’” she explained. “Moreover, it is critical to note that a buyer (nonstate entity) of the 180-acre core campus can only do with the campus what is entitled by [Sonoma] County. The Specific Plan is still the critical component for the future of the site as that determines, not our RFP, what can/cannot be developed/redeveloped on the core-campus — and that includes the development footprint.”
Asked about the overlap between the county’s specific planning process and the state’s disposition process, and how that might affect transfer of the wildlands, Iida wrote: “DGS has always said, and will repeat, that the timeline for the disposition of the core campus and the open space are intended to happen at the same time. However, there is an assumption being made here that the timeline for the disposition of those two very different spaces would be 100% concurrent. They are not.”
She also noted that the DGS’s “award of the site to a buyer is not a sale … [a lot] happens between the award and the close of escrow, and that timeline can be rather significant.”
In addition, Iida referenced the three-year agreement between the state and county for the planning and disposition process, noting the DGS only received funding to maintain the property for that time period.
“Our ability to maintain the site is not indefinite, and so ensuring that a sale happens timely is in the best interests of the community, which is why we have issued our solicitation,” she wrote. “We would have preferred to wait, as was the original schedule, until after the draft Specific Plan was posted for public comment, but have waited as long as we could.”
The people protest
Release of the state’s RFP did more than confuse me; it also fired up the grassroots in Glen Ellen and beyond. On June 6, the date the DGS invited potential bidders to take an informal tour of the campus, nearly 100 people from Sonoma Valley and beyond staged a protest at the intersection of Arnold Drive and Harney.
The PISSED (Protest in Support of Stopping the Eldridge Disaster!) demonstrators had three central messages for both potential buyers and the decision-makers. Keep Our Lands in Public Hands and SOS (Save Open Space) was front and center.
Another significant ask: Convene an inperson, town hall-style meeting with elected officials from the state, including Senators Bill Dodd and Mike McGuire; officials from the county, including Supervisor Susan Gorin and planners with Permit Sonoma; and officials from DGS, so that stakeholders can express their concerns and get clarity on the process.
And finally, protestors want to see community input incorporated into plans, including creation of truly affordable workforce housing at a scale appropriate to the site’s rural setting, recognition of the SDC’s tribal and historic legacies, and redevelopment that supports climate resiliency and ensures safe evacuation in the event of wildfire.
Both Teresa Murphy of the Glen Ellen Historical Society and Arthur Dawson, chair of the North Sonoma Valley Municipal Advisory Council, addressed the protestors during the demonstration. “California is a state that honors creative thinking and leadership,” Murphy said. “With [its] budget surplus, the state should be thinking how to incorporate the last three years of [input from] a public who has spoken at many levels to advocate for this property … It is you who have the vision. Let it be shared again and again until it is realized.”
A call to action
When I took the dog for a walk in the SDC one evening, the place was busy. Other people were out with their pooches. Hikers were heading up the hill into the woods. A threesome of mountain bikers were enjoying a post-ride picnic, complete with barbecue and camp chairs, in front of Oak Lodge.
The SDC may not be a park yet, but it’s being used as one. Planning for the campus may be complicated and time-consuming, but that shouldn’t preclude the open space becoming formal parkland sooner, not later.
This should not be a hard lift. As Murphy noted, a portion of the state’s budget surplus could be used to pay for transfer to state parks, county parks, or a conservancy. We need to write to our state and local officials and make this request for this budget session.
The reasons are plentiful, compelling, hotbutton, and easy to cite. Parks bolster local economies. Parks are equitable — everyone has equal rights and equal ownership in public open space. The SDC wildlands are ideal for inclusion in the state’s 30×30 initiative, which aims to mitigate the effects of climate change. The importance of saving wildlife corridors has statewide and national currency. Trail maintenance, signage, patrolling, and educational programs can be implemented to help keep users safe and eliminate liability. Elected officials and bureaucrats earn kudos for keeping a promise. We can even do something novel and important on the land by creating a park that honors not only the natural values of Sonoma Mountain, but also the tribal people who called the place home first and the people with developmentally disabilities who lived and died there over more than a century.