Kenwood Press

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Guest Editor: 12/15/2014

Sonoma Developmental Center at a crossroads

By John McCaull, Sonoma Land Trust

How often does a place inspire us to slow down? Venturing off Highway 12 near Glen Ellen, the Sonoma Developmental Center – or SDC – has that time-out-of-time character. Green lawns, ball fields and shady spots beckon us to take a walk, or have a picnic. The forests on Sonoma Mountain can be explored on trails linked to Jack London State Park. The valley floor’s oak woodlands and grasslands are accessible through Sonoma Valley Regional Park. Because the property is state-owned, it’s easy to assume that SDC is protected and not facing any threats of imminent change. But in reality, the future of SDC is at a crossroads.

Developmental centers are expensive to run and serve a dwindling resident population. Legal mandates require that most clients be transferred to community-based care. A 2014 Health and Human Services Agency report concluded that Developmental Centers will need to transition “to a new model.” The “new model” for SDC is unclear, but the Report recommends a course that threatens closure and possible sale of the facility.

If SDC is sold as “surplus” property, the loss to our community will be profound. What will happen to the current 400+ residents and others who need its facilities? If the property is sold for development or vineyards, what will become of the wildlife and open space? SDC is the heart of the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor, a crucial wildlife passage for the entire North Bay. The property has an abundant water supply, tremendous habitat value, and the capacity to serve an array of health, economic, social, environmental, recreational and aesthetic needs for the region. The state’s track record of closing developmental centers is one of top-down politics, with very little public input. How can we convince the state to give our community a voice and listen to creative ideas and scenarios they may not be considering?

In order to serve as an organized voice for local and regional interests, Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, county agencies, Sonoma Land Trust, Sonoma Mountain Preservation, Sonoma Ecology Center, Parent Hospital Association, and others formed the “SDC Coalition” in 2012. The Coalition continues to grow, and now includes state employee unions, state and federal legislators, Impact100 Sonoma, historical preservation groups and regional care providers for the developmentally disabled. The Coalition has also attracted participation by the Department of Developmental Services that operates SDC. Their attendance has built trust and fostered new lines of communication with state leaders in Sacramento.

The Coalition is not organized to advocate for particular outcomes for SDC. Instead, the Sonoma Land Trust has raised funds for an 18-month visioning and planning effort that will launch in 2015. The “Transform SDC” Project will engage the community to develop recommendations for future uses of the SDC land, health care and infrastructure.

The most important goal of “Transform SDC” is to tap the imaginations, technical skills, intellectual capital and passion of those who care about Sonoma Valley. Developing a shared vision for the future of the SDC site will require combining community dialogue with technical expertise in public-private financing partnerships, legal issues, land use, innovative health care service and funding models, and ecosystem management and protection. Although there are no perfect parallels for this process, the establishment of the Presidio Trust provides a relevant starting point for this effort.

We don’t know where we will end up, but in the late 1990s, local advocates “transformed” a proposal to develop 600 acres of SDC for vineyards into another outcome: the land was annexed to Jack London State Park. This victory serves as the inspiration for our current challenge. At the dedication ceremony for SDC’s opening in 1891, the keynote speaker’s closing remarks paid tribute to founding activists Julia Judah and Frances Bentley. For them, he said, “there was no such word as fail.”

(This article first appeared in the Sonoma Mountain Journal.)

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