A group of protesters march around Sonoma Plazan to speak out against the possible closing of Sonoma Developmental Center, in Sonoma, Calif., on September 14, 2013. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Close to Home: Agreeing on a vision for the future of Sonoma Developmental Center

Sonoma County is unique in many ways: our environment, our compassion, our commitment to community. Most notable is our ability to turn challenges into opportunities as we forge a sustainable future for our children.

We are again at a crossroads, facing a challenge that requires communal courage as we navigate the threat of closure of the Sonoma Developmental Center. It is not enough to hope the state of California will do the right thing; instead, we must demonstrate the dedication of our community for the humane treatment of our most vulnerable population, as well as our commitment to preserving the bucolic lands that surround the center.

The Sonoma Developmental Center opened in 1891 and is now the oldest facility in California established specifically for serving the needs of individuals with developmental disabilities. For 123 years, the Sonoma Developmental Center has served as a critical resource to families in Sonoma County, as well as throughout the North Bay region. Additionally, it has been and remains Sonoma Valley's largest employer.

Today, the center provides an extensive array of highly specialized services that promote ongoing health and increased independence for 453 residents and their families, including innovative social, recreational, educational and vocational training. Many of these services are not easily duplicated in a regional center or group home. Residents are one facet of the center.

The entire parcel is the last intact undeveloped land in the valley and provides a critical wildlife corridor for the North Bay.

The Parent Hospital Association, Sonoma Land Trust, Sonoma County's Regional Parks Department, Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District and local grass-roots preservation groups have joined together in a broad-based community collaboration to develop a vision for the future that preserves the services and the land for future generations. This collaborative vision includes continuing services onsite for residents, developing complementary services to our community and providing public access to the preserved undeveloped land.

Over the past several months, I have traveled to Sacramento many times to carry the collaborative vision for the center to state officials. We have a very clear message: We, the community of Sonoma County, have a plan, and our ideas must be central to the future preservation and conservation of our vulnerable population and pristine lands.

Our coalition has been strengthened by the efforts of state Sens. Noreen Evans and Lois Wolk, as well as Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada. Three bills are now moving forward in Sacramento, focusing on establishing a process of transition and inclusion of community voices in the planning process. I am committed to working with our legislators toward their adoption.

Adopting the legislation, however, is not enough. Our vision must include implementation-based strategic goals that consider planning and financing the future of the center. To this end, representatives from the Department of Developmental Services and the regional centers have recently joined in discussions with the coalition partners to collaboratively implement the vision for our developmental center. We hope that the future hub will include continuing services, a health center and specialized services for the broader community served by area regional centers, transitional housing, educational classes and workforce housing. And this is just the beginning.

During the Board of Supervisors meeting today, there will be a presentation about the history, services and assets of the Sonoma Developmental Center, the proposed state legislation and the next steps in our community visioning process in the coming months.

To be clear, there is no perfect solution to the future of the Sonoma Developmental Center. Change is inevitable and, understandably, the scope of the degree of that change is very difficult for those directly affected: residents, families, employees and the larger community concerned about the land.

Our central goal in developing this vision is to have a strong and defining voice in the future; to transform anxiety into ideas; fear into faith in our ability as a community to transform challenge into opportunity. We can preserve and protect Sonoma Developmental Center. Join us.

Susan Gorin represents the 1st District on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

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