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County’s SDC plans encounter local pushback but head for Supervisors’ vote

County’s SDC plans encounter local pushback but head for  Supervisors’ vote
Fern Lake and surrounding land, part of the 945-acre Sonoma Developemental Center property that will be sold by the State of California Department of General Services.Photo by Paul Goguen

By Christian Kallen

Sonoma County’s planning department, Permit Sonoma, has been making the rounds of commissions and councils the past couple of months in its final effort to gain consensus on its preferred SDC Specific Plan, which will guide redevelopment of the 945-acre Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) site in Glen Ellen.

Since the draft environmental impact report (EIR) and Specific Plan were released in August, several Sonoma Valley citizens’ groups have expressed their displeasure at the scale and priorities in the county’s plans. The county argues that it is following the state’s requirements for the site, specifically that whatever developer ends up with the site, following the Department of General Services’ request for proposal process, needs to have a way to make money.

This has led to the county’s insistence that the 1,000 housing units prescribed in the plan are necessary to meet that economic requirement, and that other opportunities for commercial income can be pursued.

However, a strongly worded letter from the North Sonoma Valley Municipal Advisory Council (NSV MAC) argued against that 1,000-unit requirement, insisting it was out of scale for the stretch of Glen Ellen between Madrone Road and the village center. The Springs MAC and the City of Sonoma echoed the NSV MAC’s arguments, but none of those bodies have any authority in the decision-making process, only an advisory role.

The SDC Specific Plan was also reviewed in October by the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission (SVCAC), a crucial step in the review process, as the 25-yearold commission is often seen as the “voice of the community” that the county Planning Commission has traditionally heeded. A no vote from the SVCAC can thwart a development or proposal in a way a no vote from the other advisory councils cannot.

And that’s what happened. At its Oct. 26 meeting, the SVCAC recommended that the Specific Pan and final EIR not be approved, calling the proposal too large for the site. The council faulted Permit Sonoma’s EIR planning and numbers, lack of adequate mitigation measures in the EIR, and reliance on the future approval of development. The commission also called out the EIR for “unsatisfactory analysis” of water and wastewater.

The next day, the review process finally reached the Planning Commission, which has the authority to require amendments to the Specific Plan and EIR, and to recommend them to the Board of Supervisors for approval. Or, conversely, commissioners can vote not to approve and send it on to the supervisors on that basis. What the Board of Supervisors decides may or may not follow the Planning Commission recommendation, but it often does.

What Permit Sonoma’s Deputy Director Scott Orr and Planning Manager Brian Oh encountered at the Oct. 27 meeting, as well as in multiple documents of public comment delivered over the preceding weeks in anticipation of the meeting, was a line-item revision of key sections of the draft SDC Specific Plan. The revision was contained in a memo from Commissioner Greg Carr, who represents the county’s First District (within which the SDC property is contained).

Carr delivered his written comments with the clear preference to see the entirety of Permit Sonoma’s work voted down, but Planning Commission Chair Larry Reed (of the Second District) tactfully evaded this request. The commission proceeded to work its way through the entire 60-page document in four meetings of several hours each, seeking to incorporate whatever objections or modifications were requested by Carr or Commissioner Eric Koenigshofer (Fifth District), who had similar concerns.

To say they “got into the weeds” of the documents, policies, statutes, and regulations of the Specific Plan would be an understatement – the commissioners even got into a digression about the “twigs and seeds” of the issue as the final meeting neared its close.

While there are too many branches of the discussion to summarize, one of Carr’s suggestions may help assuage concerns that the developer will be forced into commercializing the project to follow what Permit Sonoma calls Guiding Principle #9.

The original guiding principle read, somewhat repetitively, “Ensure that the proposed plan is financially feasible and sustainable, as financial feasibility is essential to the long-term success of the project. Ensure that the proposed plan supports funding for necessary infrastructure improvements and historic preservation while supporting the Sonoma Valley community’s needs and galvanizing regional economic growth.”

Carr’s full substitution more succinctly reads, “Pursue fiscal sustainability over the long term using a combination of reduced costs and public and private funding for site work, infrastructure, services, and community benefits.”

This edit is one of many proposed, modified, accepted, or rejected over the lengthy meetings of the Planning Commission. When the commissioners finally finished their discussions, they approved the SDC Specific Plan and final EIR late in the afternoon of Nov. 7.

Though Permit Sonoma’s Oh, who has acted as comprehensive planning manager throughout the SDC Specific Plan process, offered to publicly post the full 60 pages of remediated documentation before the Planning Commission voted, the weary commissioners agreed to “trust” the department to incorporate their changes into the final document prepared for the Board of Supervisors.

Commissioner Shaun McCaffery, representing the Fourth District, crafted a motion to signal those many changes, large and small: “I’ll offer a resolution recommending that the Board of Supervisors certify a final environmental impact report [for] the Sonoma [Developmental] Center Specific Plan, with a statement of overriding considerations and findings of fact, pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act, and also recommend that the Board of Supervisors adopt general plan amendments to maps and policies of the land-use element and other elements of the Sonoma Developmental Center Specific Plan, adopt the specific plan, and approve the zoning code and map changes.”

When the Planning Commission voted, Carr could not bring himself to say yes to a document he found essentially, fatally flawed. McCaffery’s motion passed on a 4-1 vote.

“I don’t know whether there’ll be litigation,” Carr warned, “But I have a feeling that it’s quite likely that the EIR will be litigated, and I don’t think it’s adequate for the plan that we’ve put forward.” His argument was that the EIR would only be appropriate for a smaller development, but the small steps taken to rein in the Specific Plan were not enough to assure success.

He added, “I think what we’ve got here is a plan that probably is better suited to downtown Petaluma, downtown Rohnert Park or downtown Santa Rosa. And not to this particular site in this particular environment.”