The Sonoma Developmental Center links over 9,000 acres of protected land connecting the the Marion Coast to the interior coast ranges of California in Sonoma on Friday, March 7, 2014. The Sonoma Developmental Center the last large undeveloped property in the Sonoma Valley and is home to many native plants and animals.(Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

Lawmakers join fight for Sonoma Developmental Center

A coalition of Sonoma County government agencies and environmental groups is ramping up its fight to protect the Sonoma Developmental Center from development and to maintain residential care for an unspecified number of severely disabled clients.

About 500 people reside at the Eldridge facility, which also is Sonoma Valley's largest employer. But the site's future is in doubt after a state task force in December recommended that California's four remaining developmental centers be downsized.

Concerns the state could abandon the nearly 1,000-acre Sonoma Valley site have galvanized the local community and caught the attention of the North Coast's legislative delegation. The group's demands include that the center's open spaces be protected and for public recreational facilities to be expanded, in addition to maintaining some level of services for the disabled.

"We've made it clear that we are eager and willing to have a conversation about continuation of services, different kinds of services and the preservation of the site," said Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, who has taken the lead on local efforts.

The coalition includes the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, county regional parks, the Sonoma Ecology Center and the Sonoma Land Trust. Sonoma's Parent Hospital Association also is on board.

"We want to be included from the ground floor," Kathleen Miller, the group's president, said. Her son, Dan Smith, is a resident of the facility.

State Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, has introduced legislation backing the local push. SB 1428 would require state officials to "confer and cooperate" with public and private entities in an improvement and redevelopment plan for the center should it be slated for major alterations.

The legislation would require any redevelopment plan to contain certain elements, including new or improved public or private residential care facilities on the site, the permanent protection and potential expansion of a wildlife habitat corridor that runs through the property and creation of public recreational facilities.

Evans declined to be interviewed on the topic this week. Nancy Lungren, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Developmental Services, said the agency is reviewing SB 1428 and had no comment on it at this time.

The future of California's developmental centers has been in doubt for years as institutionalized care has fallen out of favor. Funding has become a major issue as the cost to treat patients in developmental centers has soared, from an average of $162,000 per resident in 2001 to more than $400,000 today. Advocates of the centers argue that's because the facilities treat the most difficult cases.

The number of people residing at developmental centers has fallen from 6,544 in 1992 to 1,383. The decline has been accelerated by a moratorium on admitting new clients.

The state task force was formed in June following media reports detailing graphic examples of abuse at the developmental centers and the failure of law enforcement to properly investigate the crimes. The Sonoma center has given up federal funding for 112 seriously disabled patients amid investigations into problems at the facility.

Under the task force recommendations, the state's four remaining developmental centers no longer would operate as around-the-clock care facilities. Instead, the state would focus its attention and resources on smaller, crisis-intervention facilities, with longer-term care provided in partnership with regional centers and other community-based programs.

But many people who have loved ones living at one of the centers have lobbied to keep them open, saying they provide a better level of care than what can be found in community-based programs. Nearly half of the residents currently residing in a developmental center have been there more than 30 years, and 18 percent are over the age of 61, according to the task force report.

Miller, who will be gathering Saturday at the Eldridge center with other members of the Parent Association for the group's annual legislative meeting, said some families still say they don't want any changes at the facility.

"I don't either," Miller said. "But I think that ship has sailed."

The Eldridge facility employs about 1,200 people and has an operating budget of about $146 million this fiscal year. It has been a community fixture since 1891.

The property is zoned for public facility use, and any changes to that designation would require amending the county's general plan, according to Gorin. She cited the closure of Agnews Developmental Center in San Jose as reasons to be concerned about Sonoma's fate.

The state shuttered Agnews in 2009 after 120 years serving as a residential and outpatient center for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled. Part of the site was purchased in 1997 by Sun Microsystems. The state last month signaled its intention to sell another parcel for a high school, K-8 school and a park.

"The state, like any other private owner, can develop the site within the framework of the county's general plan," Gorin said of Sonoma.

She called it a "possibility" that the county would make an offer if the state put some or all of the property up for sale.

The site is at the heart of the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor, linking more than 9,000 acres of protected land running west to east from Sonoma Mountain to the Mayacamas mountains. The property also is a bridge between Jack London State Historic Park and Sonoma Valley Regional Park.

Deer, mountain lion, coyote, bobcat and rare species that include steelhead trout, northern spotted owl and California red-legged frog live on or frequent the site. Sonoma Creek, which runs through the center's property for about three quarters of a mile, is one of the county's most significant streams for steelhead.

The Open Space District currently has more than $60 million available for land acquisition. But Bill Keene, the district's general manager, said the state should not seek to sell the Eldridge property at fair market value if it decides to close the facility and transfer clients elsewhere.

"The state should just give it to us," Keene said.

He said the county would meet state objectives for protecting habitats and public access to the site. He said it also could provide access to Jack London park from Glen Ellen.

There is precedent for such action. In 2002, the state transferred about 600 acres from the developmental center site to Jack London park after the state abandoned a plan to lease the property for vineyards. That proposal fell through amid concerns that the agricultural use could pollute the center's watershed.

In 2007, the state sold 40 acres of land to the Open Space District for $600,000 to expand the size of Sonoma Valley Regional Park.

Whatever happens to the Sonoma facility, Gorin said Agnew's example demonstrates that it could take years to sort everything out.

"I think we have some time," she said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or On Twitter @deadlinederek.)

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