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News: 08/15/2019

SDC steam plant shut down, what next?

Local historians concerned with preserving books, buildings

interior of steam plant
Source: WRT Site Assessment, Sept. 2017
The steam heating plant that served 70 percent of Sonoma Developmental Center’s (SDC) buildings was high tech – and durable – when it was built 70 years ago. It kept thousands of people and patients warm and kept the now mostly abandoned buildings in a “warm shutdown” mode since early this year, when the last residents were moved into less institutional settings.

Having reached the end of it’s lifecycle – and beyond – and under a threat of possible penalties for air pollution, the plant was closed in the middle of June, triggering fears that historical buildings, artifacts, and books could begin deteriorating without heat to stave off dampness and mold.

The Glen Ellen Historical Society (GEHS) is in the middle of negotiations to purchase the SDC’s 10,000-volume library and hopes to one day have a building to house a permanent museum.

Jim Shere, former executive director of the society, announced the closure at the Aug. 5 meeting of the Glen Ellen Forum, informing members that a letter of concern was being drafted and calling on them to add their voices in support. He underscored the value of the library, noting that the volumes covered the history of physical, mental and emotional research in the field of developmental disabilities over the past century.

While oversight and ultimate disposition of the SDC’s 945 acres of open space and buildings has fallen to the California Department of General Services (DGS), they have retained the services of the State Department of Developmental Disability (DDS) (a division of the state Health Department) to continue managing the personnel remaining on site, since DDS has done so for so many years.

In a letter to DGS Director Daniel Kim, GEHS vice president Gregg Montgomery noted that the historical significance of several buildings has been well established and said that, “These buildings need to be protected against the elements while we continue our work to preserve the legacy of this once-great facility.”

A teleconference has been scheduled for Aug. 13 (after this paper went to print) with the offices of State Senators Mike McGuire and Bill Dodd, DGS and other interested parties, to discuss the ongoing maintenance without the steam plant.

According to spokesman Jorge “JJ” Fernandez, a DDS facility director will oversee the 30 to 35 remaining staff, including police and fire. Anyone wanting to contact someone on campus should call the police department at 938-1600, or 9-1-1 if it’s an emergency.

The facility received notices of violation from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District for failing to meet pollutant emission limits and the state was informed that it would be subject to significant fines for continued operation, Fernandez said.

“The Bay Area Air Quality Management District has required that the boilers be shut down and made inoperable,” he said. “However, no fines have been imposed.”

The steam equipment was housed in the Central Utilities Plant, the SDC center for water, heat, and electrical distribution throughout the facilities.

Fernandez noted that the state will continue to be responsible for the care and upkeep of the grounds and buildings over the next three years as it negotiates with the county for final disposition. The county is expected to hire a consultant this fall to help devise a specific plan for what to do with the property and buildings.

For now, Fernandez said that moisture-absorbing desiccant and space heaters will be utilized where feasible. “Some of the buildings have their own mechanical systems.”

A preliminary assessment of the SDC buildings and campus in 2016 and 2017 by nationally recognized land consultants WRT found the steam plant and much of the utility systems beyond repair, though the water systems were in relatively good shape.

“Plant Heating System: Three boilers - Installed between 1950 and 1970 - in poor condition and would require complete retrofit for continued use,” WRT’s September 2017 analysis stated. The entire plant was rated “O” for obsolete. Originally designed to serve a population of over 3,000, the steam heating plant was not well suited for a diminished role after the resident population fell below 1,500, according to an earlier report.

Looking to the future, WRT concluded that “decentralized/conventional systems may be more appropriate for incremental growth of campus reuse.”


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