Sonoma County approves sale of old Santa Rosa hospital site to housing developer
Sonoma County supervisors signed off Tuesday on perhaps the largest sale of county land in a generation, unanimously approving an ambitious but controversial deal to transform the northeast Santa Rosa site of the former county hospital complex into a high-profile housing development.
The 5-0 decision, the second of two formal votes to approve the real estate deal, clears the way for developer Bill Gallaher to pay as much as $11.5 million for the 82 acres off Chanate Road, where he proposes to build up to 800 rental units, plus housing for veterans, a grocery store, an amphitheater and other amenities.
County leaders have touted the sale to Gallaher, a politically connected Santa Rosa developer, as a clear-sighted move to meet an urgent regional need - expanding the housing supply, especially for renters, who’ve seen rates skyrocket in recent years.
“It is a vision and a concept that I think people in this community really do care passionately about, which is having housing for everybody, so that when you go to the grocery store, you know that person who is checking you out has safe and affordable housing,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the board chairwoman, whose district includes the site.
The health care complex is centered around the former Community Hospital, built in 1936 and vacated in 2014 after Sutter Health moved into its new hospital off Mark West Road.
The aging building did not meet current seismic standards and racked up costly maintenance bills, according to the county. Much of it is slated for demolition under Gallaher’s proposal.
Though a sale of the property was first raised as a possibility more than a decade ago, the deal approved Tuesday has faced strong criticism from neighbors, health care advocates and others since it was first unveiled as a proposal in February. Opponents raised concerns about the loss of health care services on the site and the future of open lands on the property.
But proponents, including Gallaher’s representative, have emphasized all along that the details of the project will ultimately be determined by Santa Rosa officials, since the land lies within city limits. A formal sale will not close until the city’s permit and planning process is complete, and officials expect that period to last about 18 months.
After Tuesday’s vote, Komron Shahhosseini, Gallaher’s project manager, expressed relief that the deal had passed a major milestone and could proceed toward adding hundreds of new housing units.
“We’re very happy, thankful for the board and that they had the vision to understand that this is something that is very, very needed - desperately needed, as I think everybody knows,” Shahhosseini said in an interview. “We’re looking forward to getting on to the city process, where so many of the issues that have been brought up by neighbors will be addressed.”
The project survived one challenge after neighbors campaigned against the inclusion in the sale of a roughly 10-acre parcel long considered part of an official open space preserve. After the county conceded, the revised real estate deal now requires Gallaher’s team to secure a conservation easement that will permanently protect the parcel, which includes a beloved open meadow.
But other concerns remain. Dr. Panna Lossy, a leader of a group of medical professionals concerned about the loss of health care services on the site, reiterated some of those objections Tuesday, even as she voiced support for at least some of what the county is trying to accomplish.
“We definitely support the affordable housing component of this deal,” Lossy said. “We wish there were more affordable housing coming with this. We also feel that the terms of the sale are not in the best public interest.”
Lossy said the sale betrayed the site’s longstanding “history of caring for vulnerable populations.” She asked supervisors to consider whether their position was influenced by political donations made by Gallaher and people with ties to him.
“I would urge all of us to be careful in questioning our own unintentional bias when we are accepting gifts from industry representatives,” Lossy said.
Supervisor James Gore rejected assertions that the sale was influenced by political spending.
“The nice comment that came up about unintended bias - I would ask everybody in this room to look at your own,” Gore said. “If you’re frustrated with the process, join the club. I am, too; I think a lot of us are. Land use is messy, unfortunately.”
A Press Democrat review of campaign finance records found that Gallaher, the founder of Oakmont Senior Living, his family members, employees and their family members contributed at least $134,969 to benefit campaigns by the current supervisors over the past nine years. Zane and Shahhosseini have both said the spending did not influence the county’s decision to select Gallaher’s proposal, one of two submitted last year for the acreage.