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To the Editor, SDC Plan: Scale it down!

I am a professional environmental land use planner and a member of the Sonoma Developmental Center’s (SDC) Planning Advisory Team.

The community was recently asked, again, by Sonoma County to identify what it wants at the SDC. Hundreds of Sonoma Valley residents, advisory commissions, and organizations have provided input in countless meetings over the past four years on the uses and densities that would fit the site. Although this was promised to be a “community-driven process,” the proposed Specific Plan reflects very little of this input.

From a land-use perspective, at 1,000+ homes and over 400,000 square feet of commercial space, the recommended plan is entirely inconsistent with the semi-rural site location. The shoddy Environmental Impact Report (EIR) generated thousands of substantive comments, including such glaring errors as underestimating traffic by 50 to 100 percent. While apparently driven by the mantra of “economic feasibility,” no economic feasibility study was conducted, and the state of California, which owns the property, remains silent as to what that means.

The community has not said “no development” or even “low develop-ment.” The Valley community, including the Board of Supervisors’ own Municipal Advisory Councils (MACs), has clearly said we want housing, including as much affordable housing as possible, on a scale that is consistent with realistic site constraints — including safe wildfire evacuation and wildlife corridor preservation. This translates to roughly 450 housing units, which is the amount contained in the EIR’s “environmentally superior alternative,” which was disregarded by county planners. This level of new housing would still make it perhaps the largest single development in the unincorporated county in our generation.

So, again, county staff and officials, consistent with sound land-use planning and the overwhelming majority of public comments (including comments from the North Sonoma Valley MAC, Springs MAC, and City of Sonoma), the community needs: – A substantially scaled-down plan, similar to the EIR’s Historic Preservation Alternative (450 homes and downsized commercial area); – Maximum affordable housing possible within the reduced scope alternative; – Balanced development that includes historic resource protection and community benefits, as called for in the project objectives and that maintains the semi-rural character of Sonoma Valley; – A smaller hotel (or no hotel), to minimize vehicle trips and other impacts.

– True open space protection, with use restrictions to protect the critical wildlife corridor; – Limited commercial uses. Creating a new city/ job center in this semi-rural area, far from transit corridors and municipal infrastructure, is poor planning and inconsistent with the county’s own city-centered growth and rural lands policies.

Stronger enforceable plan policies that will minimize impacts should include: – Prohibit “Big Box” developments; – Prohibit exclusionary fencing within the campus, to allow wildlife movement; – Establish mandatory project phasing so that housing development is prioritized over hotel/commercial development; – Establish performance standards to guide project phasing and monitor impacts; – Maximize building reuse to minimize demolition impacts; – Change policies from “should” to “shall” to make them mandatory; – Require hotel, resort, and conference center uses to obtain a conditional use permit and additional California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review.

Stop trying to justify the plan’s size by unfairly comparing it to the previous SDC institutional use. SDC residents did not drive cars, there were no commercial uses generating vehicle trips, and employees were spread over three shifts.

The county’s Planning Commission is being rushed to approve a poor plan, with the unfounded threat of the state “taking over” the property. We all need to urge local decision-makers to take the time necessary to modify the proposed SDC plan, rather than leave a legacy of oversized development, increased carbon emissions and fire risk, and destruction of one of the last remaining local and regional wildlife corridors.

Vicki Hill, MPA, Glen Ellen Environmental land use planner