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News: 09/15/2018

Legislators weigh in on SDC future

Moving the lands and buildings of the Sonoma Developmental Center from state to local control is proving to be a long and difficult process for a number of reasons. Perhaps most challenging is the fact that California and Sonoma County are working with local residents and groups to come up with a unique solution to preserve the open space and turn the rest of the property over to community-approved uses. Such an approach has never been done before.

The standard process is to ask other state agencies if they want any or all of the property. If no agency picks up on the offer, the property is put up for bid. Two prior developmental center closures led to some property being taken by the state university system and other acreage being sold for business uses.

Further complicating matters, ownership of the SDC campus will shift from the state health department’s Department of Developmental Services (DDS) to the state’s designated landlord, the Department of General Services (DGS), as of June 30, 2019 – the end of the state’s 2018-2019 fiscal year.

Another factor in the process is the next governor, who will take office on Jan. 7, although outgoing Governor Brown’s staff will prepare the first iteration of the 2019-2020 budget this fall.

Adding to the unknowns involved are determining a type of governing body – a trust, joint powers agreement, or other format – setting up a master plan, and taking care of the existing property, a major and expensive responsibility considering the SDC’s 945 acres of campus and open space that includes hundreds of aging buildings.

“Everything is clear as mud,” First District Supervisor Susan Gorin quipped, discussing the complexities of the transition.

Gorin, who is spearheading a group of county, local and private organizations interested in the transfer, said that Sonoma County would “like to ask [for] funding for community engagement, land use management, funding for interim uses, and longer term funding for someone to assume the cost of security – law enforcement and fire protection.”

The recent release of a two-year preliminary study of the campus by San Francisco-based WRT consultants makes it clear that while the 795 acres of open space could be transferred to state and local parks with little fuss, the disposition of the 292 aging buildings and other structures sprawling over 150 acres could be a very expensive undertaking, running into the hundreds of millions of dollars to repair, upgrade, or demolish.

On the negotiating table right now are ongoing operations, public safety and security, maintenance of the grounds, interim use of existing buildings, and the master plan process. All require funding to achieve, and the state will be the major source of those funds. Sonoma County’s two state senators and one assembly member are running point on the Sacramento side of the SDC transfer process.

Assembly Member Cecilia Aguiar-Curry is working with State Senators Mike McGuire and Bill Dodd. They meet regularly with DDS, DGS, the county and local community to plan the SDC’s future.

McGuire (Senate District 2) has been active in the SDC’s closure from the beginning. Initially concerned with the safe transfer of existing clients into new care facilities, he is now occupied with the murky process of moving the property into local control. He thinks of the process in three phases: the DDS ending their occupancy by next June, working out a master plan, and implementing that plan.

The first phase already has $8 million in this year’s budget. Moving forward, “We have some time,” McGuire said. “There’s no hard and fast deadline for Gov. Brown. The current administration will draft a good portion of the [2019-2020] budget. The incoming governor will bring it forward with their additions and critiques. Then the legislature has from January through May next year to work through the proposals and add programs and services we deem necessary.”

Patience will be necessary. “This may be a multi-year effort,” McGuire said. “We are all working toward a potential agreement. Folks should not be overly concerned that a budget proposal for SDC isn’t completed by October.”

“The governing body is important, but we don’t want to set up a governing body for failure by not funding them,” McGuire said. “First our focus needs to be … ongoing operations, what does it look like, upkeep and maintenance.”

“We’ll be working to ensure the safety and security of the site as the transition progresses,” said Sen. Dodd (Senate District 3). “Since conversations with the stakeholders are ongoing, it is difficult to say what will be included in the 2019-20 budget. However, police and fire are funded through the end of the fiscal year. And we’re looking at longer-term solutions to the question of what to do with this unique property.”

The state has maintained a police and a fire department for many decades on the campus.

Aguiar-Curry represents Assembly District 4, which includes the SDC lands. She is fully engaged in the ongoing transfer process.

“First of all, that place is a gem,” she said. “It has so much history. The site itself, all the [adjacent] communities, need to be respected to do this right. It will need a lot of cooperation and flexibility to achieve.”

Keeping the esthetic intact is a principal priority for her, and she acknowledged the looming costs ahead.

“We are going to ask the Governor for money in the budget for January,” she said. “The numbers that came in are astronomical. “One of my concerns is recent fires. Sonoma County officials have to be overwhelmed. We are talking with Sonoma’s chief administrative officers and the supervisors on how we can make this partnership, whether it is a Joint Powers Agreement, a takeover, land trust. Trying to figure that out is not as easy as people think it is.

“There are challenges with numerous things, like the water supply, how to take care of sensitive areas like the cemetery, and a lot of other pieces,” Aguiar-Curry said. We have to be careful on how to accept those areas.”

“We have to have a plan,” Aguiar-Curry underscored. “My biggest fear is throwing Sonoma County in charge of this if they are not ready or able.”

She encourages the community to continue writing letters supporting their visions for the SDC. “We need to have some leadership at county and community level, people who really want to work on this, who will not walk away frustrated in the short term, people who can take risks and be at the table to be inclusive about the community.”

McGuire said that, “No proposal, in my opinion – state, county, or potential JPA – can ever advance that doesn’t recognize that this land is sacred to thousands of residents over the last century and to acknowledge the residents and families who have called the SDC home for over a century.”

Gorin summed up her immediate focus:

“My real job for the next six months is to put maximum pressure on the legislators so that they stand up at the plate, to see if they understand what this community wants.”


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