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Final lap for SDC Specific Plan and EIR

State delays decision
Final lap for SDC Specific Plan and EIR
A sunlit restroom in the Chamberlain building in the proposed historic core of the SDC. The final hearing by the Board of Supervisors is scheduled for Dec. 16, just before the end-of-year deadline for the county plan to be filed with the state.Photo by Paul Goguen

By Christian Kallen

With the completion of the final environmental impact report (FEIR), Sonoma County is one step closer to adoption of the SDC Specific Plan, which will outline the parameters for redevelopment of the former Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC). Ironically, release of the FEIR comes at roughly the same time as the previously announced Oct. 24 deadline for selecting a developer for the 180-acre core campus on the site – a decision the state of California now says may be pushed back into 2023.

There is little substantial change in overall numbers in the FEIR from its earlier draft, although greater attention is paid to environmental, affordable housing, and Native American concerns (now called “Tribal Cultural Preservation”); and the new report is more definitive in forbidding large-scale commercial agricultural uses in the prescribed open space preservation area.

The revised plan goes into greater detail on protecting the wildlife corridor and even expands it by removing existing buildings “on the northeast side of campus and ensuring that new development remains within the smaller development footprint.” The developer also must “ensure that the wildlife corridor is not further restricted at its narrowest point along the north side of the campus.”

The open space definition is clarified, too: “The Preserved Open Space designation is intended to preserve open spaces outside of the Core Campus for public use and benefit, including habitat, active and passive recreation and minor park amenities, ecological services and water resources, and limited agricultural use.”

And, in a significant addition produced as part of the review process, the plan states that “hotels, wineries, tasting rooms, commercial agriculture, concessions, residential uses, and other buildings for human occupancy (in the open space), with the exception of utility or for firefighting, are not permitted.”

However, the protection of the open space is the assigned responsibility of the chosen buyer that the state’s Department of General Services (DGS) is poised to select before the end of the year. Reads the specific plan, in added wording, “The owner/operator of the Preserved Open Space shall prepare an open space plan, to be approved by the County to manage the rich diversity of resources on site …” Whatever plans are made and executed need to be reviewed by the county and determined consistent with the specific plan. State and county officials have promised that about 755 acres of designated open space will be transferred to county or state parks as part of the 945-acre property’s final disposition.

Other changes of note include renaming Fire House Commons to Sonoma House Commons; renaming Eldridge North (the on-campus residential area at the southeast corner, adjacent to a community that self-identifies as Glen Ellen) Eldridge Place; correcting the map location of the Eldridge Cemetery; omitting the “Winton tribes,” which had been listed among the first known inhabitants of the planning area (leaving Coast Miwok and Pomo as the earliest residents); and a number of other adjustments that came from public comment in the review process.

Of course, housing is the core concern of the specific plan, and of the surrounding community as well. The plan overtly calls for 283 units of affordable housing and an anticipated 1,000 total housing units. Of the market-rate housing that makes up the difference, the plan asks that 50 percent be designated as “missing middle” housing and that affordable units be integrated into all the neighborhoods, not siloed in its own community.

Another key adjustment on the housing front is the new requirement that the project build affordable housing at the same time as other residential units. Five neighborhoods — Agrihood, Eldridge Place, Creek West, Core North and Core South — are recognized, each with its own density and maximum number of residential units to be included within them. And three of the five would also have residential parcels for individuals with developmental disabilities, a total of five in all.

“Permit Sonoma appreciates everyone that took the time to give us feedback through both public meetings and formal comments,” said Bradley Dunn on behalf of Permit Sonoma. “The final draft made changes to strengthen protections for wildlife and solidify the phasing of affordable housing construction as a direct response to the public meetings, formal comments, and conversations with groups during the draft review process.”

‘This comment is noted’

However, not everyone is satisfied with the review process. “We are all very disappointed with the way public input has (not) been incorporated in the final EIR,” said Arthur Dawson, who, as chair of the North Sonoma Valley Municipal Advisory Council (NSV MAC), crafted a widely circulated critique of the draft EIR. “The handling of the process has seriously eroded public trust. There is a sense that we are being ignored.”

As but one example, he points to the EIR’s reference to the location of the project as “between the unincorporated communities of Glen Ellen and Eldridge” as vague and inaccurate. Dawson notes that Glen Ellen, as a community, actually surrounds the SDC campus, in spite of the cited census designations that identify Eldridge and Glen Ellen separately.

“A project’s location is fundamental to the analysis of its impacts,” Dawson wrote. “A poorly framed site location potentially skews the impacts identified and analyzed in the EIR” and increases the likelihood of legal action.

The FEIR gives a response to Dawson’s observation: “This comment is noted … It is not within the scope of the EIR to address community names and boundaries.”

Additional disenchantment with the review process finds its way into the many comments submitted by the public since the release of the draft EIR in August, which are appended to the voluminous FEIR, totaling 2,518 pages in the PDF document. That FEIR document and its predecessors can be found at the county’s website:

Included with the release of the FEIR are appendices of comments submitted on the draft from the following organizations, in addition to the NSVMAC: the Sonoma Ecology Center, the Glen Ellen Historical Society, Jack London Park Partners, the Valley of the Moon Alliance, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Sonoma Land Trust, as well as 192 individual letters and two public agencies, the City of Sonoma and Sonoma Valley Fire District.

Many of these comments, and the bodies making them, overtly favor what is called the Historic Preservation Alternative, which would value the historical use of the site, limit new construction and thus improve the environmental impact of a larger project, and limit the housing unit number to about half the preferred 1,000. The plan, however, doesn’t meet the state’s goal that it must be designed “with the intent to reduce uncertainty, increase land values, expedite marketing, and maximize interested third-party potential purchasers.”

“Several comments state that because the Historic Preservation Alternative is the environmental superior one, the County should adopt that rather than the Project,” summarizes the FEIR. “This comment is noted. The Draft EIR is an informational document that provides environmental analysis to decision-makers as they consider adoption of the Specific Plan. The decision on whether to adopt the Project or not or an alternative is up to the decision-makers (in this case, the County Board of Supervisors).”

In other words, it all comes down to the Board of Supervisors when they meet in December to adopt the SDC Specific Plan, including whatever revisions are yet to be made.

Final review

While these are, in theory, the final documents produced by Permit Sonoma in the SDC specific planning process, there is still a review mechanism built in. The Sonoma County Planning Commission was set to review the final EIR and Specific Plan at its Oct. 27 hearing, past this paper’s deadline. The final hearing by the Board of Supervisors is scheduled for Dec. 16, just before the end-of-year deadline for the county plan to be filed with the state.

The seven-week period between Planning Commission review and the Board of Supervisors meeting might indicate reworking of parts of the documents is to be expected, possibly to include additional Planning Commission hearings. “A lot of people think the EIR is inadequate, and if those inadequacies aren’t properly identified and addressed, that’s bad planning and leaves the door open for lawsuits,” said Tracy Salcedo, who has been attentive to the SDC Specific Plan development from its inception.

In fact, the deadlines have always been fluid in this process, and the problem is that the state’s DGS (which has the final authority in transferring the property) and Permit Sonoma have different deadlines in their calendars. “The new schedule provides the Planning Commission time for deliberation, while maintaining our ability to complete the SDC planning process by the Dec. 31 deadline outlined in the County’s agreement with the State,” said Dunn.

Meanwhile, the DGS, which in June announced Oct. 24 as the date it would announce the selected buyer, will not make that deadline. “DGS is still evaluating proposals,” wrote Jennifer Iide, a public information officer for the department, in response to an inquiry from the Kenwood Press. “We are not anticipating announcing an award in October. The announcement may come in 2023.”