For SDC, let’s try something different
By Stephanie Hiller
Many local people love the Sonoma Developmental Center. Purchased for some $55,000 in 1920, it literally belongs to the people of the state. Once the biggest employer in the Valley, with 3,000 residents at its height, this institution holds a firm place in many hearts. It has been a place where residents and staff have worked together in harmony and mutual affection.
After 120 years of service, the state decided to close it. I remember well the enthusiasm at the first large community meeting sponsored by the Sonoma Land Trust and the Sonoma Ecology Center. I’m sure the state was impressed by its fervor. Perhaps as a result, they decided to do something different. Rather than treat the 945-acre property as “surplus property,” putting it up for sale to the highest bidder, the state invited a community process to determine its use. It was, as Daniel Kim of the Department of General Services put it, an “unorthodox” approach; they had entered uncharted territory.
Four years went by. Today the first step, the governance of the land, has still not been decided. The state and the county are in “intense deliberations,” according to Richard Dale of the Ecology Center, and the community process is on hold.
We’d all like to see something special happen there, not the old “wine country” special, but something that enhances our community. Here is an opportunity to plan for an uncertain future. What do we want for our community? What legacy would we like to pass on to our kids?
Spurred by a suggestion made by Dave Ransom, head of Spiritual Action, a mission of the Methodist Church, that this land include affordable housing, I found myself writing a proposal for future use of the SDC. One thing has led to another, and we now have a small group dedicated to creating an ecovillage there.
Ecovillages have emerged as a new form of community where people work together on the land and in the community without pushing nature’s limits, particularly as we face the rapid onslaught of climate change.
We know that solutions to climate change exist. We must reduce or eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels to keep the temperature from rising more than two degrees Celsius. Our small efforts thus far have not succeeded.
Less known is that we can actually reduce the carbon in the atmosphere by growing lots of vegetation, large and small. Photosynthesis uses the carbon to nourish helpful bacteria that improve the soil and actually retain water. It’s a win-win.
New systems to protect the water supply, purify and reuse waste water, provide temperature control in buildings and so forth are being developed.
We would like the property to be held by a Community Land Trust (CLT). This is a type of Trust that is managed by the people who lease space on the property. The CLT owns the land in perpetuity, protecting it from escalating land prices, and rampant commercial development.
The CLT would be under the direct supervision of the Board of Supervisors through one its agencies, such as the Community Development Commission, or perhaps a new type of fiscal agent recently devised to replace redevelopment: the Enhanced Infrastructure Finance District, EIFD.
Many wonderful plans have already been proposed. The Glen Ellen Historical Society has proposed a museum. Glen Ellen wishes to see historic preservation of some of the buildings. The Parent Hospital Association has offered to tend the cemetery. All of that and more could be governed by the Trust.
Multigenerational living would offer a safe and nurturing setting for children as well as an active life for older adults. A retreat center could provide sanctuary for those seeking respite from stressful lives. Surrounded by preserved open space, we could grow food for ourselves and our neighbors in the area of the old farm.
Most of the old buildings are useable, especially for those willing to live communally. In time they would be renovated to create apartments. There is plenty of space for other residents to build individual LEED certified homes. Electric vehicles, scooters, bicycling and pedestrian traffic would be encouraged. A smart electric streetcar would help keep the traffic on Arnold to a minimum.
Varied community facilities, open to the public, could include offices, local businesses, cafes, a theatre, art studios, a healing center, community sports field and recreation center, retreat center and spa – take your pick. All would be part of the Community Land Trust; all would adhere to ecological standards adopted by the community. In time, the village at Eldridge would become a vibrant center for locals and visitors alike.
Sound like a dream? Why not? In a world of nightmares, it’s well to have dreams. Can we make the vision become real? That depends on the will of the community. With imagination, energy, professional skills and financial expertise we can make this dream come true.
Contact us at 939-8272 or email me, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stephanie Hiller is a writer and Junior College instructor. She lives in Sonoma.