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‘Like buying a car without looking under the hood’: Latest Sonoma Developmental Center plans draw dozens of protesters

On Monday afternoon, the California Department of General Services invited potential developers to take a self-guided tour of the 945-acre Sonoma Developmental Center property in Eldridge, a treasured site the state is attempting to sell off.

It isn’t clear whether any developers took advantage of the offer, but about 75 protesters showed up, lining both sides of Arnold Drive at its intersection with Harney Street. The mostly older crowd carried signs bearing slogans like “Don’t Pave Paradise to Put Up a Parking Lot,” “Keep Your Promise” and “I’m P-I-S-S-E-D!”

That last one is an acronym for Protest in Support of Stopping the Eldridge Disaster!

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said one of the demonstrators, Damon Connolly, a Marin County supervisor who is running for state Assembly in California’s 12th District. “This one issue is front and center for local residents.”

That issue is whether Permit Sonoma, the county’s land use planning and permitting agency, has identified the proper scale for the project that will replace the now-defunct institution.

The battle lines are clearly drawn by now.

Unhappy residents of Glen Ellen and surrounding Sonoma Valley communities say the redevelopment plan allows for as many as 1,000 housing units, which could overwhelm local roads during wildfires and forever change the nature of their community. They believe an important wildlife corridor that runs through the site isn’t being adequately protected, and that the county, which has been given a unique opportunity to co-manage the development process with the state, has largely ignored their concerns.

Permit Sonoma has countered that the county desperately needs housing, especially affordable housing, and that the agency has compromised by scaling down the initial vision for the project by several thousand units. Permit Sonoma representatives also emphasize that if the plan isn’t economically viable, the process could stall and the Department of General Services could take away the county’s seat at the table.

With draft versions of an environmental impact report and a site general plan moving forward, and the state beginning to offer guidance to potential developers, there was hope the divide between proponents and opponents might narrow.

Instead, the state’s request for proposals from developers, quietly released May 17, has only ignited more outrage. In fact, even the county’s treatment of that request has resulted in suspicion.

As longtime Glen Ellen resident Alice Horowitz noted, the website devoted to the SDC plan has a page that lists Project Documents — with the newest submission placed at the top — and, below those, contextual Background Documents. The recent Request for Proposal is found not at the very top of the page, but at the very bottom. Some of the Monday protesters see it as an attempt to hide information.

Then there is the Department of General Services’ Scored Points Proposal, which shows how the state will weight a number of factors when evaluating the proposals of individual developers. Two of those factors fall under the heading Project Objectives. They basically amount to how closely a developer hews to the county’s project description and achieves the overall goals in disposing of this historic property.

In the eyes of Arthur Dawson, a historical ecologist who lives in Sonoma Valley (and has written for The Press Democrat), those project objectives are where advocates like him have been able to lend their voices and perhaps influence the end product. Yet they count for just 10% of the score. Both together are outweighed by the price and terms of the bid, which accounts for 25% of the decision.

To Dawson, that means a big developer could conceivably come in, ignore the project objectives, offer a huge price and win the project.

“Donald Trump could have a successful proposal under these guidelines,” he said.

In addition, Dawson and other local residents are perplexed by the parallel timelines presented in the request for proposals. Specifically, they wonder how it makes sense to announce the selected buyer on Aug. 15, a month before the county adopts a specific plan for SDC and the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors certifies an environmental impact report.

“It’s like buying a car without looking under the hood,” Dawson said.

Dawson later spoke to the assembly through a microphone, perched in the bed of a Dodge Ram pickup truck on the east side of Arnold Drive, as woodpeckers hopped in a towering tree above his head and passing motorists gave an occasional supportive honk.

Bradly Dunn, a policy manager with Permit Sonoma, directed questions about the Scored Points Proposal to the state. As for the two timelines, he acknowledged he has heard of local discontent, but said what matters most is that any developer will have to operate within the guidelines of the specific plan eventually adopted by the county.

“I understand that people have a lot of passion about SDC, especially neighbors of the property,” Dunn said, “and we will continue to work with members of the public who have expressed a lot of passion around this project to create a specific plan that addresses our key goals — the housing crisis, open space and having a project that is economically feasible.”

As opinion among Glen Ellen residents galvanizes, some are calling their efforts NIMBY-ism. They don’t want their quality of life in the gorgeous hills of the Coast Ranges affected. But no one would dispute the need for more affordable housing in an area where few people with low-paying jobs can afford to live in any semblance of comfort.

Some of the protesters at SDC say that characterization is off the mark.

“Housing? Bring it on,” Alice Horowitz said. “We’ll gladly welcome new neighbors. But it has to be sensible.”

Horowitz, who created the Eldridge for All website, has been promoting the “PISSED” slogan in emails to members. She agreed there could be many demonstrations in the future, but argued the acronym could just as easily stand for Partners in Sustainable Solutions to Eldridge Development.

“We’d rather be partners than protesters,” she said. “There will be more PISSED protest. Hopefully, in the partnership vein.”

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

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