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News: 05/01/2019

Possible cost of SDC acquisition outlined

Price tag could run to $43 million after transfer done

A preview of the proposed state funding for the Sonoma Developmental Center’s eventual transfer to private or county ownership was released in April in a letter from the Governor’s office to the Legislative budget committee heads who will deal with it during the 2019-2020 budget hearings over the next few months.

While these numbers and statements are tentative, they represent the clearest view to date of what the Department of General Services (DGS) and the State of California are expecting at the end of the three-year period allotted to Sonoma County for creating a specific plan to transfer ownership and responsibility for the 945-acre property.

The state has approved giving Sonoma County $3.5 million for the next three years to study the problem. The new documents show the state looking for legislative approval to spend $43 million (including the $3.5 million) over the next three fiscal years to take care of the property and work on the final outcome.

However, the budget revision letter says that, “DGS expects that the sale and disposition of the property will recover costs associated with the warm shutdown.” What that means is definitely unclear. Will there be a $43 million bill at the end of three years, or some later date? No one seems to know at this point.

Despite that, initial responses have been positive.

“This is good news for Sonoma County,” John McCaull said. “The language is out with our elected people having seen it and supporting it.” McCaull represents the nonprofit Sonoma Land Trust in the TransformSDC group that has been working with the county since the SDC closure was announced in 2013. He is also pleased with the reaffirmation that the SDC’s open spaces will be kept open and/or included with adjacent state and county parklands.

The budget letter clearly states that the property’s open space will remain in open space, going to state or county parks or other wildlife purposes, perhaps closing the door on future development of those 745 acres. The remaining 200 acres, with more than 150 buildings, are the problematic part of the deal. The centuries-old buildings have environmental issues and other problems arising from lack of maintenance over the years as the state slowly wound down SDC’s main mission and moving its population into residential facilities.

In addition to the $3.5 million for Sonoma County in the next fiscal year, DGS is asking for a $21,064,000 addition to its basic annual budget to “manage the Sonoma Development Center and begin decommissioning activities.” That would be split over the next two fiscal years at $11.2 million and $11.4 million, respectively. The remaining $17.6 million for 2019-20 will pay for property management, utilities, security, fire protection, grounds keeping and weed abatement, repairs, regulatory permit compliance, reporting requirements, and initial “partial decommissioning activities.”

The proposed budgets contemplate maintaining most of the SDC’s existing buildings in “warm shutdown” mode, with heating, electricity and ongoing maintenance to prevent weather damage and neglect. These maintenance budgets address two major elements: people and projects, and provide a fairly clear idea of what the personnel expenses will be. There is not much detail given as to what the project costs will be.

A few projects are mentioned in the preliminary figures released. Until final disposition of the property three years from now, the state must provide security to prevent unauthorized access to the site and buildings, grounds keeping, weed abatement to reduce fire hazards, water services for fire suppression, and fire prevention and control services. It is also required to maintain regulatory compliance for SDC’s reservoir dams, storm water collection and outfall systems, sanitary sewer collection systems, water diversion, storage, and distribution systems, and hazardous materials and storage facilities.

The SDC’s Central Utility Plant will be shut down to address air quality issues significantly out of compliance. It routinely violates nitrogen oxide emission limits, and the steam distribution and condensate return systems are in poor condition and failing. These air quality violations make the plant cost prohibitive to operate.

Closing the plant will be followed by initial “decommissioning” procedures: removal of fuel storage tanks; motor pool fuel dispensing facilities that pose potential environmental risks; demolition of swimming pools that represent a potential public health and safety risk; and other items over the next fiscal year. “Decommissioning costs are anticipated to decrease after year one,” the April 17 DGS budget revision letter explained.

How the campus buildings serviced by the steam plant will be kept warm is not stated.

Another confusing element of the “decommissioning” process is whether DGS expects that the $20 million or so budgeted for decommissioning over the next three years will terminate the state’s liability for all remediation and rehabilitation of the buildings’ current levels of toxicity. Phase One of an 18-month analysis of the campus finished in 2017 by WRT Consultants estimated the cost of cleaning up the campus buildings – demolition or rehabilitation – at over $100 million.

The budget revision summary says that the state expects “Sonoma County will include development of a detailed plan that specifies the allowable building intensities and residential densities, appropriate zoning, design guidelines, infrastructure needs and costs, financing mechanisms, and program-level environmental review.”

The county-managed planning process will be integrated into a DGS-led disposition process. DGS anticipates a three-year expedited planning process, during which time DGS would retain jurisdiction of and responsibility for the property. Sonoma County will have to submit quarterly reports on progress toward the goals.

The DGS is also requesting that the former landlord, the Department of Developmental Services, continue to oversee the employees who will keep working at SDC. Responsibility for the entire facility will be formally transferred to DGS by July 1 of this year.


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