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The SDC: Where we stand and how we got here

The SDC: Where we stand and how we got here
The main building at the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) in Eldridge. In a process that goes back decades, the state of California is closing and disposing of all its developmental centers, many of which were established, like the SDC, more than a century ago. The “final disposition” of the SDC is in its final stages, with the state having issued a request for proposals from potential buyers/developers and Sonoma County expected to release a draft environmental impact report and specific plan on Aug. 8.Photo by Paul Goguen

By Tracy Salcedo

Sonoma County’s planning agency, Permit Sonoma, is expected to unveil a draft Specific Plan and Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for redevelopment of the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) on Aug 8. The release of these documents represents one of the last chances the public will have to weigh in on transformation of the 945-acre property before Sonoma County’s Board of Supervisors approves a master plan and state officials sell the campus to a private developer.

For those who’ve been immersed in the closure process for the past decade or more, release of these documents presents yet another chance to get lost in the weeds. So many issues are at play in the final disposition of the 180-acre core campus and conservation of the surrounding 765 acres of open space — the scale of residential and commercial development, financial feasibility, water rights, deferred maintenance, mitigation of hazardous materials, adaptive reuse, historical preservation, protection of a wildlife corridor, and more — that settling on a viable redevelopment plan seems out of reach.

For others, new to the process, new to the area, or re-immersing themselves after time away, the draft EIR and Specific Plan may prove indecipherable, and formulating a cogent response may be frustrating and enervating. They may wonder why some things are included and others not; how to engage more deeply; what’s in it for them.

Whether you’re lost in the weeds or sussing out the issues for the first time, knowing the history of both the place and the process is foundational to shaping practical and actionable feedback. Why does the SDC’s history matter? Why does the history of the planning process matter? Because what’s happened before invariably informs what happens next. People care about the SDC’s legacy. People care about how, and if, planners and elected officials are incorporating their feedback into redevelopment plans. Time is short, and time will tell.

Tribal connections

The land we now call the SDC was once the homeland of Coast Miwok, Wappo, and Pomo peoples and their ancestors. Those who called Sonoma Mountain “where the world begins” built villages on the valley floor, hunted game on the mountainsides and fished in the creeks, and harvested what they needed from the bounty of Sonoma Valley to support their thriving culture. Little remains of what the first people created on the site of the modern SDC, and what does endure should be honored according to the wishes of their descendants.

I’ve been told local tribal leaders are following the redevelopment process for the SDC property. When they speak publicly — and I hope they do — I’ll be listening with open mind and open heart. Every chapter in the story of the SDC has transpired on stolen land, and when we make claims now about who should own what and what should go where, we need to remember those claims are burdened with unspeakable cruelty and tragedy. We need to honor the memory and understanding of the tribes who endure. We need to do everything we can to make amends.

A home for the ‘feeble-minded’

Frances Bentley and Julia Judah were mothers looking for a new home for their children with special needs. William McPherson Hill was an ex-senator who owned a beautiful, secluded property at the foot of Sonoma Mountain in Eldridge, next to a quaint little village called Glen Ellen. In the late 1880s, Senator Hill sold 1,670 acres to the association started by Mrs. Bentley and Mrs. Judah for $51,000, and in 1890 construction began on a sanctuary for their children and other “almosts.”

The first residents arrived at the newly established California Home for the Care and Training of Feeble-Minded Children in 1891. In those early days, the iconic brick Main Building was flanked by two wings, Bentley Hall for men and boys, Judah Hall for women and girls. As the population of Eldridge grew, Glen Ellen grew in tandem, and the two communities became, over the years, conjoined twins, each supporting the other in ways tangible and intangible, and cultivating open-mindedness toward people who thought differently and moved differently through the same world.

The home was intended to be self-sustaining, with its own dairy, orchard, farm, laundry, shops, school, hospital, dormitories, and more, and over the years the campus grew, with buildings straddling Arnold Drive. Much of what happened in Eldridge in those early days was for the good of all — residents, staff, and neighbors — a foundation for the “legacy of care” that stakeholders hope to preserve on the site.

But the place also endured an exceptionally dark time. While known as the Sonoma State Home, under the administration of Superintendent Fred O. Butler, residents were subjected to medical procedures and experiments based in eugenics, an ugly, bigoted field of study founded on the idea that the human race could be “improved” through selective breeding. More than 5,500 people were sterilized over four decades at the home, before the practice ended in 1952 and was outlawed in 1979.

In the latter part of the twentieth century, the institution pivoted back to its roots. Redubbed a developmental center, the focus was on ensuring individuals with developmental disabilities received the care, education, and attention they needed to thrive. By the 1960s, the SDC housed more than 3,000 clients and employed more than 1,000 caregivers and support staff. Remember these numbers: They come back into play later in the story.

The Lanterman Act and final disposition

Institutional care of people living with developmental disabilities began to fall out of favor in the late twentieth century. Closure of all California’s developmental centers emanates from what’s known as the Lanterman Act, legislation passed in the 1960s that called for an end to “involuntary detention of all but the most gravely mentally ill” in institutions. For better or worse, centers across the state shut down, and residents moved into home settings.

What happened to those closed facilities, with their historic buildings, their cemeteries, their surrounding open spaces? They were deemed surplus properties and transferred from the state’s Department of Developmental Services (DDS) to the Department of General Services (DGS), which handled their final “disposition.” Some, like Stockton, Lanterman, and Camarillo developmental centers, became university campuses. The Mendocino State Hospital became a Buddhist monastery. DeWitt State Hospital was repurposed as a government center for Placer County. Agnews Developmental Center in San Jose was sold to tech giants. None of these transitions was without controversy, but there was no accommodation in the DGS process for redevelopment to be community driven. These were real estate deals, and DGS’s mandate was to make the sales.

By the time closure and final disposition for the SDC property rolled around, it was clear something different had to happen here. The future of the property, so intensely integrated in the fabric of Sonoma Valley, had sparked the grassroots, an engaged and vocal constituency who understood a word that has, over the years, become hackneyed: community. The SDC was community, both in and of itself and also within a greater context that included, most intimately, Glen Ellen, and more broadly the Sonoma Valley and Sonoma County at large.

The grassroots and the vision

In 2012, under the guidance of Sonoma County First District Supervisor Susan Gorin, the SDC Coalition came together. Composed of representatives from a plethora of groups interested in the fate of the SDC post-shutdown — law enforcement and fire officials, county planners, elected officials, representatives from environmental groups, advocates for people living with developmental disabilities, experts on local history, and more — the coalition was the initial touchstone for what would be touted as a firstof- its-kind community-driven process to determine the fate of a stateowned developmental center.

In 2015, the coalition hosted a meeting aimed at distilling a community vision for the future of the SDC. Hundreds of people offered input — and hundreds of people showed up again, in subsequent years, at community meetings at Dunbar Elementary School in Glen Ellen and Hanna Boys Center, to fine-tune and elaborate on that vision.

The fundamental elements articulated in those meetings, which have been reiterated again and again, most recently in a letter from the North Sonoma Valley Municipal Advisory Council (NSV MAC) that garnered more than 1,900 supporters (individuals, organizations, and political entities), include:

– Preservation of the property’s wildlands in the public trust in perpetuity. The SDC open space on both sides of Arnold Drive shares borders with state and regional parkland, and there is overwhelming support for ensuring its transfer to those agencies sooner rather than later. This includes preservation of the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor and setbacks along creeks and streams to ensure their ongoing health.

– Ensuring redevelopment of the campus is appropriately scaled. Stakeholders agree homes should be built on the site, but the number (the NSV MAC letter suggested no more than 450) should be scaled so that the rural character of the region is maintained. Stakeholders also agree that as many homes as possible (ideally, all) should be affordable for essential workers like teachers, medical professionals, firefighters, and hospitality workers, who are currently priced out of the market. Redevelopment should also employ adaptive reuse of existing structures on the campus, be energy efficient, and not contribute to climate change.

– Preservation of the site’s cultural history, including buildings of historic significance, the cemetery, and native sites.

– Ensuring commercial development is scaled appropriately to the site, and that job creation is beneficial to the local community (specifically, no resort hotel).

– Accommodating the “new reality” of wildfire by making sure the scale of redevelopment, both residential and commercial, does not negatively impact the ability of all Sonoma Valley residents from safely evacuating.

– Establishing a governance structure — perhaps a trust — that enables local input on redevelopment as it proceeds, and as needs and conditions change.

It’s worth mentioning that grassroots groups have, with passion and endurance, been instrumental in developing and reiterating elements of the vision through thick and thin. These groups — too many to list here — represent community, environmental, housing, equity, and historical interests. They’ve been meeting for years around conference tables, kitchen tables, and on long walks on the property. These meetings could have been adversarial, but instead built relationships and consensus, proving special interest groups can play nicely together, even while staying focused on a specific goal.

An exception to the rule

Recognizing business as usual wasn’t going to fly at the SDC, in 2019 state Senators Bill Dodd and Mike McGuire, and Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, championed legislation that initiated the specific planning process now underway.

That legislation, while groundbreaking, also created a conundrum that continues to stymie planners and stakeholders. In addition to earmarking $3.5 million for Sonoma County’s planning agency, Permit Sonoma, to develop a plan and process that included an “opportunity for community input,” the legislation calls for permanent protection of the property’s open space, the provision of affordable housing on the site, and “expeditious planning of future land uses for the site … with the intent to reduce uncertainty, increase land values, expedite marketing, and maximize interested third-party potential purchasers.”

This is where the ever-elusive concept of “economic feasibility” comes into play. What will it take to make the property enticing to a potential purchaser? Open space preservation, affordable housing, and economic feasibility are all laudable goals that have proven impossible to satisfactorily reconcile so far.

To develop the specific plan, Permit Sonoma engaged the services of consultants Dyett & Bhatia. Three alternatives for redevelopment were presented to the public in November 2021, and all three were panned in public meetings, including one before Sonoma County’s supervisors, who will ultimately approve the plan.

Those three alternatives proposed creation of between 990 and 1,290 dwelling units, along with commercial space, including a resort/hotel, to create up to 1,200 jobs. Rounding to 1,000 homes (about 3,000 new residents) and 1,000 jobs, this means the SDC would be occupied by essentially the same population it had 60 years ago.

To folks in planning silos this might seem appropriate; to folks in the community the proposed scale was untenable. Stakeholders reminded planners that none of the SDC’s former residents owned cars, had to commute to jobs, had to run errands, or had to evacuate from wildfire. People who worked at the center commuted in three shifts, and many lived close enough to walk or take public transit to work. The scale was simply too large for the rural heart of the valley.

NOP. RFP. EIR. WTF.

With the release of the state’s Request for Proposals (RFP), which outlined parameters for potential buy- ers based on the county’s Notice of Preparation (NOP) for the environmental impact report (EIR), it became clear that, despite all the inputs, meetings, letters, and conversations, the alphabet soup of documents thus far essentially perpetuates the public perception that redevelopment plans for the SDC are not community driven but emphasize other market-based, political, and bureaucratic priorities.

As demonstrators pointed out in a protest staged in June titled “Protest in Support of Stopping the Eldridge Disaster” (PISSED), residential and commercial numbers don’t reflect the carrying capacity of the property or of Sonoma Valley at large and need to be scaled back. The open space hasn’t been set aside. Economic feasibility hasn’t been defined. In fact, stakeholders have yet to see a plan that draws a boundary around critical elements of redevelopment on the site. What are the open space boundaries? Where will the housing go? Where will commercial development take place, and what uses will be permitted?

Has the community been heard?

We will just have to wait and see. And, of course, participate in review of the draft EIR and Specific Plan following its anticipated release on Aug. 8.

To view a copy of the EIR when Permit Sonoma releases it on Aug. 8, visit sdcspecificplan.com.

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