Advocates of protecting the Sonoma Developmental Center from unwanted development should the state close the facility fear a Southern California lawmaker’s bill could undermine their efforts.

SB 944, authored by Sen. Norma Torres, D-Pomona, attempts to tackle the highly charged issue of what to do with developmental center property once it is no longer used for the purpose of housing and caring for arguably California’s most vulnerable citizens.

The bill would require local authorities to get state approval before rezoning the 302-acre property used for the Lanterman Developmental Center in Pomona, and to make economic development among the highest priorities for the site’s future use. The center was slated for closure in 2010.

A spokesman for the senator said last week that the new law would apply only to Lanterman. But critics, including a North Coast lawmaker and the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, raise concerns the bill could set a precedent statewide and affect ongoing efforts to create a local vision for the future use of the state’s largest developmental center in Eldridge, near Sonoma.

“I have great concerns because I believe the future use of the Sonoma Developmental Center should be solely determined by local jurisdiction in Sonoma County,” said Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael.

Gov. Jerry Brown has signaled his intent to close or dramatically downsize the state’s four remaining developmental centers in favor of smaller, crisis-intervention facilities, with longer-term care provided in partnership with regional centers and other community-based programs. The centers are home to 1,239 people, down from 6,544 in 1992.

A coalition of Sonoma County government agencies and environmental groups is seeking to maintain some level of services for the disabled at the Eldridge facility should it be downsized or closed, while also protecting and expanding public recreational facilities at the nearly 1,000-acre site. The center is home to 443 patients, and employs about 1,200, making it Sonoma Valley’s largest employer.

On Friday, state health officials signaled their intent to strip the Sonoma Developmental Center of millions in federal funding for one of the center’s main care facilities amid ongoing problems that include patient abuse.

A state task force reconvened in Sacramento on Thursday to begin examining services for the developmentally disabled in the community, after the same group last year recommended downsizing the state’s four remaining developmental centers.

In the case of Lanterman, legislation is needed to protect the site’s market value and to encourage a large employer to locate there, said Alex Barrios, a spokesman for Sen. Torres. He said the state’s current guidelines for disposing of surplus property give priority use to affordable and low-income housing projects, and that in some cases, local governments work to rezone the property.

The Lanterman property is adjacent to Cal Poly Pomona and overlaps the city of Pomona and Los Angeles County jurisdiction.

Barrios said SB 944 would increase employment opportunities in an Inland Empire region that is “thirsting for jobs,” and dispose of surplus property in a manner that helps drive economic development in the area rather than create more blight.

He said amendments to the bill, agreed to by Torres, address concerns raised by Levine.

“Assembly member Levine is looking out for his constituents, as he should,” Barrios said. “But it’s pretty clear that our bill will not have any adverse impact on the residents of Sonoma County.”

However, an analyst for the Assembly’s Local Government Committee wrote prior to the committee taking up the bill June 25 that it “still creates a precedent of allowing DGS (the state’s Department of General Services) to trump the authority of a local government to enact zoning ordinances.”

The analyst also asked the committee to consider whether getting the highest value for the property “is more important than the needs of the community that surround the property.”

Levine was the only member of the committee to vote against the bill, which is next headed to the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee on Aug. 6. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors expressed opposition to the bill in a June 26 letter to Assemblyman Mike Gatto, chairman of Appropriations.

Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose district includes the Eldridge facility, said that she feels “it’s really important that the particular legislation be amended so that it applies to the specific circumstances in Southern California.”

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.