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Focus on the SDC: Context and Backbone

Focus on the SDC: Context and Backbone
“Sonoma House” on the site of the former Sonoma Developmental Center illustrated in ink and watercolor by Glen Ellen Artist Archie Horton. The Queen Anne-style structure was built in 1897.Source: Archie Horton

By Tracy Salcedo

Sonoma County planners want to build 1,000 new homes on the Sonoma Developmental Center’s 180-acre core campus and enough commercial space to support 900 new jobs. They say they’ve built enough mitigations into their proposed Specific Plan that the environmental impacts of the project are, to use the technical term, less than significant.

Well, with the exception of traffic and history. Permit Sonoma, which released the proposed plan and accompanying Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) on Aug. 10, recognizes the impacts of increased “vehicle miles traveled” — essentially, the traffic that the proposed plan would generate and its inevitable noxious fumes — can’t be brought into compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the law that protects essential human interests like fresh air, clean water, and green spaces. They also determined the preferred plan fails to meet CEQA requirements for “historic preservation,” and that adaptive reuse of historic buildings on the campus is less financially feasible than razing them and building new. The plan calls for demolishing every structure on the campus east of Arnold Drive.

As for the rest of it — all those homes and all those jobs, all those people, and all of their stuff — won’t have a significant environmental impact on the wildlife corridor and surrounding open space, on water resources, on wildfire evacuation, on the safety and well-being of not only new residents living at the SDC, but also of residents who already live nearby.

We knew it was coming. Community activists from Glen Ellen, the Springs, Kenwood, Oakmont, the city of Sonoma, and farther afield had a feeling 1,000 homes and 1,000 jobs was what Permit Sonoma would promote. The development-laden planning train had been barreling down the track since the first alternatives were proposed in November 2021, and no matter the constraints identified by the community, other agencies, and recent experience, that train couldn’t be derailed. We knew what was coming, but hoped we’d be heard.

The disappointment is profound.

They are prodigious

I need to start by letting you know I’m still in the process of digesting the two new documents. The proposed Specific Plan is almost 200 pages, and the DEIR totals 789 pages.

But I’ve read the entire proposed plan and enough of the DEIR to have serious concerns and questions about the methodology and logic of what is planned for the site. I’m not alone in this. As you can imagine, my inbox exploded once the docs were released. People are blown away by the idea that dismantling the existing campus and building new accommodations for 3,400 new residents and workers could be environmentally sound. They are blown away by the fact that the DEIR asserts there’s essentially no difference in impacts if the amount of development is cut in half. They are blown away by the idea that, when wildfire blows out of the Mayacamas again, the addition of 2,000 cars fleeing the flames will somehow be OK because a new road will connect Arnold Drive and Highway 12. Like funneling all those people toward the mountains that burn, and then into a bottleneck in the Springs or Oakmont, is a good idea.

And there’s more. It’s easy to get lost in the specifics, which talk about fencing, and leashing cats, and mullioned windows, and planting pineapple guava in the agrihood, and meeting dark sky standards. To address all the components in this column would be an exercise in the absurd, and boring as hell. Instead, I’ll tackle a few things that, to my mind, get to the heart of what is planned for the heart of the valley.

Putting things in context

Every alternative examined in the DEIR considers the SDC campus a discreet unit. With the focus on housing, and meeting the perpetually undefined goal of being economically feasible, the alternatives essentially recreate the SDC as its own community, with only cursory acknowledgement of neighboring towns (including the nonexistent town of Eldridge). Even within the preferred plan itself, 10 discreet neighborhoods are proposed for the site, with specific identities. It’s as though the SDC campus exists in a void, with no connection to what surrounds it.

But it doesn’t. I’ve said it before: What happens to the SDC happens to Glen Ellen. This is a semi-rural community that already has a downtown, markets, restaurants and shops — and an identity. Urbanizing the SDC, as the preferred plan would, urbanizes Glen Ellen. Redevelopment at the scale proposed overburdens community roads and open spaces, which are critical to the health of every entity in the valley: human, newt, lupine, oak, and frog. One of the goals of the specific planning process was ensuring redevelopment of the SDC would “complement” the surrounding community. Instead, the surrounding community fades off the map.

Even more disturbing, at the scale of development proposed, the entirety of the Sonoma Valley is transformed. The people in the city of Sonoma know this; they see the gridlock in their future. The people in Oakmont know this; they fear the gridlock that will put their lives in danger when the next evacuation is ordered. How much water will we be asked to conserve when the water we’ve got is already in short supply, but more people need to drink? How much more congested and complicated will our lives be when other developments coming down the pike, like those at Hanna Center to the south and Elnoka to the north, are built out?

The connections are real, and the cumulative impacts are significant.

We were heard, then dismissed

That said, Permit Sonoma did hear the local community. The North Sonoma Valley Municipal Advisory Council (NSV MAC) drafted a letter based on community input that requested redevelopment of the site include 450 homes — a number reiterated by First District Supervisor Susan Gorin. An alternative plan focused on this number, along with 600 jobs, is one of five studied in the DEIR (along with the oxymoronic No Project High Development alternative). Dubbed the Historic Preservation alternative, Permit Sonoma actually determined the 450 homes/600 jobs plan to be environmentally superior to the proposed plan.

Then, the alternative is dismissed

The DEIR includes plenty of verbiage explaining why, but essentially it comes down to making redevelopment of the site lucrative for a developer. Building affordable housing on the site is a mandate in the legislation guiding final disposition of the property. The standard formula for making sure building affordable housing pencils out holds that a developer must build a greater number of market-rate homes; in the preferred plan, the ratio is 75% market-rate (a base of 773 homes), 25% affordable (up to 283 homes).

Putting aside my umbrage that an as-yet unnamed developer takes priority over more than 2,000 people who signed onto the NSV MAC letter, I have to wonder: Can the standard formula be changed? Is there a way to change the percentages and the methods of compensation, so that 450 homes/600 jobs pencils out? The last chapter of the specific plan document explores a number of mechanisms a developer could use to offset the onerous costs of upgrading infrastructure on the property — a huge impediment to profitability — along with other financing options. Could those same mechanisms, which include formation of special districts and tax incentives, also be applied to the less-dense option?

And more hopefully, could these mechanisms be used to bridge the gap between affordable housing advocates, who rightfully call for housing that the valley’s workers can afford, and advocates for redevelopment of the SDC that also supports the viability of its natural resources, and the priceless human benefits those resources provide?

Backbone

After the documents came out, a wave of sadness and exhaustion flooded over me. I went to the SDC seeking solace, guidance, answers — anything to make me feel better.

The dog and I wandered up to the cemetery. As I climbed, the tears started. I let them flow. All this effort, all these meetings, all the promises, and all we’d gotten was more of the same. I laid down on the low stone wall that borders the graveyard and stared into the hard blue sky. I let my hand drift into the grass. I watched the crows fly. I thought about the people buried downslope, cradled in the earth of Sonoma Mountain.

The day’s heat, stored in the stonework, began to seep into my spine. A straight shot of warmth and comfort. No guidance, no answers, but a little solace and a shot of strength.

Buck up, I thought.

In Oakmont a few weeks later, I listened to a resident rail about how no one has the backbone to stand up for doing what’s right on the land, for the land, and for the people. I felt the warmth in my straightening spine as I squared my shoulders. If no one else, I told him, I have backbone.

To those readers overwhelmed and dismayed at what’s proposed for the SDC, and for their community by connection, here’s what I’d invite you to do. Pick your passion. Read the reports if you have the time and fortitude, but more importantly, based on whatever your foundation, write the letters. Ask the questions. Express your concerns. The Sonoma Land Trust (sonomalandtrust.org) has a webinar focused on understanding the proposed plan and DEIR set for Sept. 8. Attend Glen Ellen Forum and NSV MAC meetings to learn more, and then the upcoming meetings of the Sonoma County Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors to express your opinions to the decision-makers for the final plans. If you need help finding dates, links, and talking points, visit the Eldridge for All website (eldridgeforall.org).

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