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Sonoma County releases draft environmental report for Sonoma Developmental Center

A long-anticipated draft report released Wednesday calls for approximately 1,000 housing units — including 283 affordable units — to go along with 940 on-site jobs and a resident population of 2,400 at the historic site near Glen Ellen.|

A long-anticipated draft report released Wednesday calls for approximately 1,000 housing units — including 283 affordable units — to go along with 940 on-site jobs and a resident population of 2,400 at the site of the historic Sonoma Developmental Center near Glen Ellen.

Those numbers, which are in line with previous proposals, are bound to add fuel to the ongoing debate about how best to use a property that has been called a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity by neighbors and officials alike.

“I think 1,000 is too big, and 283 is too small,” said Tracy Salcedo, a longtime Sonoma Valley resident, writer and advocate for the former institution for the developmentally disabled. “And we are stuck in a conundrum where financial feasibility is dictating how we do the right thing. The right thing should be to provide more affordable housing, and turn our creative energies toward that rather than inundating the north end of the valley for what’s essentially too few affordable units.”

Sonoma County’s land use planning and development agency released the draft Environmental Impact Report and accompanying Specific Plan on Wednesday.

Totaling more than 800 pages, the two reports constitute the first narrowly drawn proposal for redevelopment of the iconic 945-acre site, which was home to a state-run hospital for the developmentally disabled that was established in 1891 and closed in 2018.

“The proposed project has less than significant impacts on wildlife, fire evacuation, and water,” said Bradley Dunn, policy manager for Permit Sonoma. “The (report) shows that the proposed plan helps us achieve our goals of providing more housing, especially affordable housing, protecting open space, and having a fiscally feasible plan while having similar environmental impacts as the alternatives.”

The total housing figure in the draft report is larger than the 450 to 700 units county Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose district includes Sonoma Valley, had argued for in late March. Her parameters were reflected in two of the rejected alternatives presented for comparison in the document. Another pair of alternatives, including one that called for even more housing, involved handing over the property to the state, with no county input.

The state owns the land, but is allowing the county to help guide redevelopment in a unique partnership plan. Sacramento insists that any proposal be financially feasible for developers, Dunn has emphasized.

“I don’t believe we’ll be at a standstill with the state,” Gorin said. “I really just want to focus our attentions on some of the lower-impact developments that might be part of the plan, getting them into a scale appropriate for that context.”

Gorin noted that the most recent Regional Housing Needs Allocation demands Sonoma County build 4,000 to 5,000 new units by 2031. Some of that must happen at SDC, she said.

The question is how much. Gorin insisted there is still time for healthy debate.

“We are not at the end of the process,” the supervisor said. “We’re entering into the very active discussion phase with a Specific Plan and several alternatives. There will be a number of opportunities for the community to comment, and to work through our advisory councils.”

One of those organizations, the North Sonoma Valley Municipal Advisory Council, was scheduled to meet Wednesday night. Sonoma Developmental Center was not on the agenda, but Gorin expected plenty of comments.

There will be another public meeting in Sonoma Valley on Aug. 24, and a Sonoma County Planning Commission session that will discuss the topic Sept. 15. The final Environmental Impact Report will be released Oct. 17, and that report will be discussed by the Board of Supervisors at their Nov. 8 meeting.

It might not go smoothly.

“If you see a mushroom cloud over Sonoma Valley, you’ll know the Specific Plan didn’t go well,” Gorin joked.

In a lengthy list of potential impacts, the draft report included only two it deemed significant. One was addition vehicle miles that will be generated by the development, a consideration required by California Environmental Quality Act. The other was adverse change to the character of the historic district. Dyatt & Bhatia, the urban planning firm that prepared the report, called both of those likely impacts unavoidable.

It would be impossible to guarantee that all of the historic buildings at SDC will be salvageable, Dunn said. And he emphasized that many mitigation measures will be in place to help reduce vehicle traffic at the campus, including a walkable core, mass transit options and bike lanes. The site will feature the county’s first local transportation management agency.

“Someone lucky enough to live in the future SDC would drive less than others in Sonoma County,” Dunn said.

Meanwhile, the draft report stated that many of the concerns most vocally expressed by neighbors over the past few years, and especially in recent months, will have less-than-significant impacts. These include exposure to wildfire, emergency evacuation plans, scenic views, fragile animal and plant species, generation of greenhouse gases and noise.

Some of those dismissals didn’t sit well with residents who had gotten their first glance at the documents.

Caitlin Cornwall, senior project manager for Sonoma Ecology Center, said she was confused by assertions that a community of 2,400 people wouldn’t have a significant impact on things like greenhouse gas emission and surrounding biological diversity. She also saw no evidence that a large data set the Ecology Center had submitted to the county, which showed potential effects on protected turtles on the east side of the property, had been considered.

“Also, it says the project would not induce substantial population growth,” Cornwall said. “I don’t know what the threshold is for substantial, but that seems odd.”

Like Salcedo, Cornwall cautioned that she hadn’t had time to thoroughly read the two hefty documents. They and others will be combing through them soon enough.

Salcedo knows this valley well. She believes the coming three months are likely to be as contentious as those leading up to Wednesday’s release, with multiple advocacy groups seeking to prioritize this unique property in different ways.

“I don’t think the community will be surprised that it’s 1,000 homes and 900 jobs,” Salcedo said. “But it’s not what this community has asked for. The fact that this does not appear to be a community-driven plan will raise some eyebrows. And then you have to ask which community is driving it.”

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

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