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A social service group's dream of turning a former hospital into a refuge for disadvantaged young adults runs headlong this week into the stark reality that a large and well-organized group of Santa Rosa neighbors remain fiercely opposed to the idea.

The Dream Center, as Social Advocates for Youth is calling the 63-bed transitional housing facility it wants to open in the former Warrack Hospital, has much going for it as it seeks city approval for the project.

It has an inspiring name, a heartwarming mission, well-connected supporters and the sponsorship of an organization with a 43-year record of giving young people "a hand up, not a hand out."

But after more than six months of debate and several changes meant to address neighborhood concerns, hundreds of residents remain vehemently opposed.

The city has received more than 900 letters and emails about the project, an almost unprecedented outpouring of public comment for a land-use application. While many emails express worries about the conclusions of an environmental impact report or increased traffic to the former hospital site in Bennett Valley, others stand out for their hostile "us-versus-them" tone.

This week the controversy lands in the lap of the seven-member Santa Rosa Planning Commission for the first round in a fight that may ultimately be decided by the courts.

One young adult helped by SAY, 25-year-old Zech Engdahl of Santa Rosa, said the alternative to the Dream Center is simply having more homeless ex- foster kids living on city streets.

"They've been doing what they've been doing for 30 or 40years," said Engdahl, a former foster child who plans to speak at Thursday's meeting. "It's definitely a large project, but I feel confident they're able to take it on."

Warrack Hospital operated for nearly 50 years until Sutter Medical Center of Santa Rosa closed the 69-bed facility in 2008. It has since offered to turn the campus at the intersection of Hoen Avenue and Summerfield Road over to SAY at no cost.

SAY originally proposed housing 100 people at the facility, but quickly scaled back plans. The Dream Center as proposed will increase its capacity to a maximum of 63 residents after three years of operation: 51 beds of transitional housing where people can stay for up to two years and 12 emergency shelter beds with a three-month maximum stay. A variety of counseling and health serviceS as well as education and job-skill classes and SAY administration also will be located on-site.

The Planning Commission is being asked to rezone eight parcels, fewer than the 21 parcels originally proposed. As currently constituted, the project will cover 8.7 acres.

It also is being asked to sign off on planning staff's conclusion that the project will have no significant environmental impacts, and to approve several conditions governing the use of the property. The City Council has the final say.

SAY Executive Director Matt Martin said he knows the hearing will be a difficult one, but he's looking forward to the opportunity to speak directly to city decision makers.

"I think the commissioners really have a tough decision on their hands," Martin said. "I absolutely appreciate the process we're going to be going through as a community all together. I look forward to it, but it's going to be hard."

As they gear up for Thursday's 4 p.m. hearing in the City Council chambers, opponents are zeroing in on the city's conclusion that the project would have no major environmental impacts on the neighborhood.

That conclusion, arrived at in a document called a negative declaration, found that the traffic, noise and air quality impacts of The Dream Center wouldn't be significant, a finding based in large part on the fact that the site for years operated as a more intensive hospital use.

For example, the report concluded that the ample parking on the property and its location at the intersection of two major arteries will be able to handle the expected 385 traffic trips without difficulty. By comparison, a fully operational hospital would generate 893 trips per day, the report found.

But the notion that there will be no impacts from the project strikes many neighbors as absurd.

"To say that 63-bed halfway house in a residential neighborhood isn't going to have an impact or that the impact is negligible, really, that's mind boggling!" neighbor Russell Wyatt said.

The 57-year-old retired parole officer is behind the neighborhood group Citizens Unite, which has organized much of the opposition to the project. He lives, like several opponents, east of the project in a hillside subdivision of half-million-dollar homes between Summerfield Road and Annadel State Park.

Wyatt and others are pushing for a Socio-Economic Impact Assessment, or SEIA, to be performed for the project, something they hope would provide a clearer picture of the project's effects on their neighborhood. The city has called such a report inappropriate.

The city's refusal to require a more comprehensive environmental report, combined with the way a meeting was run last fall and other factors, have some critics feeling the city's process is rigged in SAY's favor.

"I believe that the process is being corrupted and it's being fast-tracked," Wyatt said.

He and others note that SAY partners with the city, receiving taxpayer funds for gang-prevention programs through Measure O. They also note that former Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm expressed support for the project before the application was even submitted to the city.

But he's far from the only one. State Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, mall owner Connie Codding and commercial real estate broker Jim Keegan are just a few of the influential city leaders who strongly support the project, not to mention the representatives of the city's banking, legal, financial and high-tech community who serve on SAY's board of directors.

Martin acknowledges that SAY has strong community support, but says the claim that the skids have been greased just isn't true.

"It's been a very rigorous progress with tight deadlines and hard questions," he said.

One of the hardest questions SAY has contended with is whether The Dream Center will create public safety risks for area residents.

Most of SAY's messaging has emphasized how the center will provide a much-needed place for foster children to go when at age 18 they are effectively kicked out of the foster care system with a "$300 check from the State of California and the gift of homelessness," Martin said.

Every year about 40 foster children in Sonoma County age out of foster care, with few options available to them. Because of the lack of services, 65 percent will find themselves homeless within a year.

SAY operates two facilities to address this need. One is Tamayo Village, the 25-bed facility on Yulupa Avenue that SAY has run for the past nine years. Another is a small, seven-bed facility in north Santa Rosa called Stepping Stones. The Dream Center proposes to expand the affordable housing options for these young people.

For many of them, "the simple dream of having a home, receiving guidance from supportive adults, learning from mentors, and being a part of a community that cares about each other will all be within reach," wrote Gerald Villarreal, chairman of the Sonoma County Family YMCA board of directors.

Engdahl, the former foster youth, credits SAY with teaching him life skills needed to become a responsible adult. He began using SAY's services in late 2007 and 2008, a period during which he found himself homeless.

"I had just aged out of the foster care system and made a bunch of poor decisions, mostly financial," he said Saturday. "When you're a foster kid, no one teaches you how to do anything."

Now, he lives in a three-bedroom house in Santa Rosa that he shares with roommates. He works full time at a bike shop, and is taking courses at Santa Rosa Junior College, with the goal of becoming a registered nurse.

Though his housing situation is stable, he said SAY continues to assist him with scholarship money, and with paying for years' worth of catch-up immunizations he needs if he hopes to become a health care worker.

As SAY has taught him how to live on his own, Engdahl has become a passionate advocate for the organization. On Thursday, he will read a letter from a supporter of the Dream House who's unable to attend the Planning Commission meeting.

But critics said, despite its successes, SAY has conveniently avoided talking about others who will make up a significant portion of the population served at The Dream Center -#8212; homeless young adults and those on probation. A group of 12 current and retired probation officers wrote a letter to the city in September questioning SAY's claims that Tamayo Village didn't house gang members, convicted felons or sex offenders.

They argued that those claims were misleading because they ignored the fact that residents may have sealed juvenile records for such conduct.

"It appears to be a case of deliberate misrepresentation," said Brenda Chatelain, one of the more vocal critics.

Martin says SAY has never misled the public on any issue related to The Dream Center. They have always been upfront that Tamayo Village helps troubled youth, including a small portion, about 10 percent, who are completing probation, and that The Dream Center would do the same, he said.

"We don't turn away youth who may have made mistakes in their lives," Martin said.

To have SAY's integrity come under such attack has been difficult, Martin said.

To assuage neighbors' safety concerns, Martin said The Dream Center has committed to not allow any sex offenders or violent felons to reside there. In addition, they have agreed to conduct background checks and additional tough screening rules that will reject applicants "whose habits and practices may reasonably be expected to have a detrimental effect on the operations of the project or the quality of life for its residents or the community."

Martin said he realizes that won't be enough to satisfy his sharpest critics, some of whom propose stricter regulations such as regular drug tests and greater public oversight of operations.

"For the folks who are most angry, the only number that they are looking for is zero," he said.

Many residents are clearly uneasy about the prospect of so many young people from troubled backgrounds living in their neighborhood. They worry about an increase in crime, a drop in property values, and deterioration in the quality of life in a place they view as a peaceful, family corner of southeast Santa Rosa.

Some seem to almost wear the badge of NIMBY -#8212; Not in My Backyard -#8212; with honor.

Jolie Carniglia, 35, says she is a fifth-generation Bennett Valley resident. In her letter to the city she called the project a "wart on the tender skin of our community" that "threatens to crumble the very foundation we've built to create such a unique place."

"When thinking of the possibility of the SAY Dream Center planting its feet in my backyard, my stomach turns," Carniglia wrote.

Another lifelong resident, 20-year-old Austin Jacobs, urged commission members to "not allow our community to be brought to a lower standard of living that the majority of the western half of our city has unfortunately come to know."

Mike Hanly, who called himself a "very concerned and frightened senior citizen," said he was "scared spitless" by the project.

"I am 81 years old and for the first time I feel the need to buy a gun, and that is exactly what I will need to do if this gets crammed through," Hanly wrote.

These and other comments highlight a socioeconomic rift that underlies some of the opposition.

Census data show that while Santa Rosa as a whole has seen a sharp increase in its Latino population, Bennett Valley has gotten whiter.

From 2000 to 2012, the white, non-Latino population of the three census tracks that make up the bulk of Bennett Valley increased from 84 to 86 percent of the population. During that same period, the city as a whole saw its white population drop from 71 percent to 60 percent.

Median household income also rose faster in Bennett Valley, up 28 percent to $90,890 during the same period versus the 19 percent increase citywide to $60,525.

Despite the opposition, Martin holds out hope that future residents of The Dream Center will not be seen as outsiders.

"If this thing happens, we don't want it to be an island in Bennett Valley. We want it to be a part of the fabric of Bennett Valley," he said.

News researcher Janet Balicki contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @citybeater.