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Sonoma County supervisors back new vision for old Sutter Hospital site

Sonoma County supervisors Tuesday signed off on a broad vision to sell or lease the ?117-acre former county hospital and health care complex on Chanate Road in Santa Rosa for development of affordable housing, commercial and retail space, new walking trails and other amenities.

“This is a very exciting opportunity,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, whose district includes the property. “It gives a chance to address the crisis we’re having with affordable housing.”

The Board of Supervisors is seeking to accelerate the solicitation of plans for the site, hoping to choose a development proposal as soon as fall 2016, said Tawny Tesconi, the county’s general services director.

The county has been analyzing the site and its structures since Sutter Hospital vacated the property and relocated north of Santa Rosa late last year. Among the findings, supervisors said some of the buildings will have to be torn down because they aren’t seismically safe, and the future developer will have to work with the city of Santa Rosa to rezone the property for commercial and residential development.

It is one of the most high-profile and valuable pieces of county land, sitting on the outskirts of Hidden Valley, one of Santa Rosa’s most established and wealthy neighborhoods.

It’s unclear how much housing the site will contain, or how much of it would be set aside as affordable units, but the idea of building new housing was praised by supervisors.

“This opportunity comes around once in a lifetime ... it’s such a large swath of land,” Supervisor David Rabbitt said.

Some current county services, including the public health laboratory as well as the county morgue, could be relocated under a future development deal. Other services, including mental health treatment, already are slated to move.

Housing rights and homeless advocates welcomed the proposal, but pushed supervisors to think about using the property to build a mix of low-income and workforce housing, as well as accommodations for homeless people and the mentally ill.

“We don’t want to see market-rate housing with 20 percent affordability - that’s a waste of valuable public land,” said David Grabill, a Santa Rosa attorney and housing advocate. “That neighborhood badly needs some diversity … a diversity of incomes, race and housing.”

Adrienne Lauby, a member of Homeless Action, an activist group in Sonoma County, said supervisors should allow homeless people to use the property while it’s empty.

“I think this plan stinks,” Lauby said. “Guarantee that every homeless person who wants can come in out of the cold.”

Georgia Berland, from the Sonoma County Task Force for the Homeless, called on supervisors to create permanent supportive housing units for the chronically homeless, and expand the county’s safe parking program that allows homeless people to park on county property overnight.

“I’m pleading with you to consider … housing those without housing,” Berland said. “The places don’t have to be perfect, they just have to be livable. It’s better than living outdoors.”

No one spoke out against building housing on the 16 parcels on the north and south side of Chanate Road, but some said they were worried about inviting crime and fire dangers into the area.

“I’m concerned about the safety of the neighborhood,” said Don Rowell, who lives nearby.

Supervisors indicated that the site would not be used for homeless housing or the overnight parking program, pointing out that the property still houses nonprofits and some county offices.

“Anything we contemplate putting on the site has to mesh with the surrounding neighborhood,” said Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin. “We should not only be looking at the site for opportunities for housing, but also services and potentially jobs.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter ?@ahartreports.

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