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County moves ahead with preliminary plan for Sonoma Developmental Center, but likely with less housing

Susan Gorin requests scaling down housing proposed for the site from 900-1,000 units to 450-700.|

More than three hours into the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors’ discussion Tuesday on the future of the 930-acre Sonoma Developmental Center property in Glen Ellen, supervisor Susan Gorin cut to the chase, advocating a reduction of proposed housing units from the 900-1,000 range to between 450 and 700.

There were few tangible outcomes beyond that.

County staff stressed repeatedly that Tuesday’s agenda item would not lead to a vote. Instead, the lengthy conversation would serve as what Permit Sonoma Planning Manager Brian Oh referred to as an interim checkpoint.

“What we have presented today is a framework for the project description that would go into the environmental impact report,” Oh said. “We have started on broad concepts based on feedback that we’re hearing from the community.”

But judging by the comments that followed Oh’s presentation Tuesday, Sonoma Valley residents do not believe the county is being responsive to that feedback.

Speaker after speaker called for a scaled-down footprint, additional time to study wildlife impacts, more public transportation and bike lanes, services for people with disabilities, and a greater concentration of affordable housing.

“Make no mistake, the draft project description that was recently released has virtually no community support,” said Arthur Dawson, chairman of the North Sonoma Valley Municipal Advisory Council. “Everyone is saying no. It’s just too big. It would double or triple the size of our small community, and turn it from a rural place to an urban place.”

The institution opened in its current location as the California Home for the Care and Training of the Feeble Minded in 1891 and served Californians with mental and physical disabilities until the state closed it in December 2018. The state spends about $10 million per year maintaining the mostly empty campus, according to the Department of General Services.

Dawson’s group had submitted a wish list to the Board of Supervisors, which calls for lower density and includes a plea for more time to study priorities for the property and gather community input.

A number of commenters seemed to prefer that approach to any of the three alternatives established by the county.

Dawson said his council has gathered 1,500 signatures in support of their approach.

It remains to be seen whether the county can come up with a plan that adequately balances the many concerns of community members, some of them potentially in opposition to one another.

The outline offered by staff Tuesday includes generation of approximately 1,000 jobs, and preservation of about 25 historic buildings.

The concern heard most often at the board meeting was the sort of affordable housing that would allow the workers of Sonoma Valley to live near their places of employment.

“I care deeply about my neighbors in Boyes Hot Springs, and many of them are profoundly housing-insecure,” said Dan Levitis, community science coordinator for the Sonoma Ecology Center, which sits on the SDC property. “So along with environmental protection, my priority here is on housing. … I urge planners to consider a higher percentage of multistory, high-density housing.”

The supervisors had questions about what exactly would constitute affordable housing. Whatever the threshold, the county’s plan emphasizes the “missing middle” of the housing sector — relatively reasonable homes in the form of duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes, townhomes and condominiums.

Oh, the Permit Sonoma planning manager, and the supervisors stressed that the current proposal is flexible, with details to be hashed out during the environmental impact review process. But they dampened talk of convincing the state of California, the property owner, to extend the timeline for a period of months or years to more fully study impacts on wildlife, traffic and fire safety.

“The goal is to follow up on the commitment,” board Chairman James Gore said. “And that means no delays on this project. It’s one thing for this to take time, for us to take months to get through it. But we’re under a commitment to take action and have deliberations on this.”

County staff is expected to publish both a draft environmental impact report and a specific plan for public review in June. The county planning commission will hold public hearings in July and August, and the Board of Supervisors is supposed to consider certifying a final environmental report and adopting a final specific plan in September.

“I’m so appreciative to state elected officials for recognizing how unique this campus is, and not simply surplusing the land to an unnamed developer,” Gorin told The Press Democrat. “I’m confident the community will come together and rally around a specific plan that is in scale with the community, but one that creates an inspiring campus for the future.”

Among the many ideas floated Tuesday, a few seemed to gain wider traction.

One was securing protection of the property’s wild lands by putting them under management of government entities. In the case of the hilly area abutting Jack London State Historic Park to the west of the main campus, it would be the California State Parks system. It would be regional parks and open space agencies for land on the east side of Arnold Drive.

Another popular notion was introduced by Doug Bosco, chairman of the California Coastal Conservancy (and a co-owner of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat). He suggested a hub for studying climate change adaptation.

“I picture a place where the best scientists, engineers, inventors, foresters, entrepreneurs, environmentalists, investors are invited to create a laboratory, where synergy, innovation and focus are directed at this most important challenge of our lifetime,” Bosco told the board. “… What better place than Sonoma County? We know the face of climate change.”

While local leaders are generally showing deference to the state, which is allowing Sonoma County an unprecedented opportunity to partner in creating guidelines for the sale of a state property, Gorin was one of those Tuesday who suggested asking Sacramento to contribute to refurbishing the failing infrastructure at Sonoma Developmental Center.

The cost for updating that infrastructure is estimated at $100 million or more, a financial outlay expected to be borne by the eventual developer. That sort of obligation limits the restrictions the county might otherwise place on the buyer. Some wonder why the state, which had control over the SDC campus as it fell into disrepair, isn’t on the hook for those improvements.

That’s one of the many issues left hanging by Tuesday’s marathon session on a unique jewel of a property that offers stunning scenery, rich history and access to both Santa Rosa and the city of Sonoma.

As Gorin said to begin Tuesday’s conversation: “It’s been a long time birthing this baby, and we’re not quite born yet.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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