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Glen Ellen residents want Sonoma Developmental Center project scaled back

Residents called for less density and less traffic at a Wednesday meeting. Sonoma County officials argue it’s largely out of their hands.|

Sonoma County officials convened their first broad-based community meeting on redevelopment of the Sonoma Developmental Center property in Glen Ellen earlier this week.

After approximately 4 hours and 45 minutes of dialogue, it was easy to form the impression that no one is happy with any of the county’s three alternate plans for the historic, 930-acre site.

After committee members from three separate community advisory councils had voiced their concerns to Permit Sonoma planning manager Brian Oh and to Rajeet Bhatia, principle for the consulting firm Dyett & Bhatia, members the public got a chance to speak via Zoom.

One resident suggested an innovative setting like a college or sports complex or boarding school, while another advocated for a rehab center for veterans. One man said the big issues were “housing, housing, housing,” while adding that any new buildings should be low-slung, so as not to impede his view.

“I so wanted to endorse a great product from this planning process – to do what I can, to help create goodwill for a great product,” said a commenter identifying himself as Rick. “And with all due respect, none of these alternatives come close. They are terrible.”

While different participants championed different causes, from socio-economic equity to wildlife protection to preservation of historic buildings to traffic mitigation, the clear consensus during the online meeting was that Alternatives A, B and C all call for too much development and too much density. Vocal community members want the project scaled back.

But with county representatives stressing that any plan must be economically viable for potential developers, the question is whether stakeholders can come together on a proposal by late January. In the current timeline, that’s when the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on a preferred alternative.

“I think it’s not a workable timeline,” Arthur Dawson, a historical ecologist who has lived in the area for more than 30 years, said a day after the meeting. “These alternatives were supposed be out in like April or June. If we had six months, I’d probably say it’s more reasonable. A month? That’s not so reasonable to me.”

Many people at the Zoom meeting urged the county to amend the time frame and allow for more debate. The county says the schedule was set by the state, which owns the land and is departing from protocol in allowing local input, and likely can’t be altered.

“The state of California partnered with us to program land use for this site with the express understanding that it was a three-year process,” Bradley Dunn, policy manager for Permit Sonoma, said Thursday. “They gave us the funding to do so, and the timeline. In order for us to meet that timeline, we need move forward with this process, which includes developing a preferred alternative by January.”

The state’s involvement is a complicating factor and, in the eyes of some community members, a convenient reason for the county to throw up its hands and claim helplessness.

To simplify, state and county agencies worked together to identify the needs that must be fulfilled in the redevelopment plan — broadly, those involve housing, preservation and job creation. The county has until late January to identify a preferred alternative, and until next September to draft a specific plan. Once approved by county supervisors, the state will shop the land to developers. Assuming a purchase agreement is reached, the purchaser will be obligated to abide by the specific plan as it moves forward.

Everyone seems to agree that SDC is a unique opportunity for the community, a rare blend of rugged woodland and decades-old structures with its own reliable water supply, just 20 minutes from the Sonoma Plaza and a half hour from downtown Santa Rosa.

But there are challenges. Few of the existing buildings would be suitable for single- or multi-family housing without major remodeling. Fire vulnerability is high. And current ingress and egress from the site come via two-lane Arnold Drive.

That latter point drew a lot of discussion Wednesday night.

“The emergency preparedness is frightening,” said Teresa Murphy, who worked at the institution for more than 30 years and is an active member of the Glen Ellen Historical Society. “I was evacuated in 2017. I got out at 1:30 (a.m.), ahead of the masses. But I heard nothing but horror stories about the traffic. They’re talking about putting in another road to Hwy. 12. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s two lanes.”

Dunn acknowledged Thursday that identifying evacuation routes is a point that requires further attention.

As for the more general push to downsize alternatives, several participants at the Wednesday-night meeting argued that the county should push back against the state on the money matters.

“I wonder why the housing has to support the historic buildings being preserved,” said Iris Lombard of the Springs Municipal Advisory Council. “The state of California was a bad landlord. They let this property fall into disrepair. And now we’re being penalized for that.”

Dunn says the county’s options are limited. The state spent nearly $4.5 million staffing and maintaining the moribund property during the 2019-20 fiscal year, and the end users (or public agencies) will have to fund $27-$40 million for restoration of historic buildings. He also said that the tone of the virtual meeting was very different than what he heard the night before at Saint Leo’s Catholic Church on Agua Caliente Road — an in-person forum conducted in Spanish.

“We heard there that folks wanted good, high-paying jobs,” Dunn said. “They wanted affordable housing that’s available to their community. People want jobs that are pathways to middle-class work.”

The chorus calling for less of everything was not unanimous Wednesday night, either. Hannah Perot, also of the Springs council, cited a California report that said between 1954 and 1989, the state averaged more than 200,000 housing starts — new residential construction projects — per year. From 2008 to 2018, the annual average was less than 80,000.

“So it seems to me that development used to be OK, and then something changed,” Perot said. “I guess my question is why are we not looking at doing more housing here? It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And I just know that housing costs have affected a lot of people near me.”

No additional public forums are planned for SDC, but a survey is still up on the county website and residents are encouraged to email their opinions. It’s a debate that is unlikely to lose steam anytime soon.

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

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