Sonoma County supervisors scale down Sonoma Developmental Center plan to 620-750 housing units

A marathon meeting scales down the plan for 1,000 homes in the redevelopment of the storied Eldridge campus.|

At the end of a marathon all-day meeting Friday, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors struggled over a key question at the heart of its deliberations over a plan to shape the future of the Sonoma Developmental Center in Glen Ellen: Where to set the bar for the number of housing units?

In the ninth hour, amid haggling with county staff, the board was poised to endorse a compromise with residents who have criticized the proposed scale of construction on the storied 945-acre campus

The board settled on 620 units of housing, down from the 1,000 units called for initially in the Specific Plan and environmental impact report before supervisors Friday for final votes. The state’s chosen developer could add a number of units as a density bonus, but the total is unlikely to exceed 750 units.

Supervisors also endorsed 100-foot setbacks along creek corridors while adopting recommendations made by the county Planning Commission that included capping unit size at 1,800 square feet — seen as essential to creating much-needed “missing middle” housing.

Even at a reduced scope, the reinvention of the historic institution that housed Californians with developmental disabilities from 1891 to its 2018 closure would comprise one of the single largest housing developments in the county.

And it comes at a time of heavy pressure from Gov. Gavin Newsom and state officials for local governments to do more to address regional housing shortages.

A stream of residents took to the microphone Friday to plead for a scaled-down development plan of about 450 units — a number that Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose 1st District includes SDC, has long advocated.

“Will you supervisors be affected by 1,000 homes in Glen Ellen?” asked longtime resident Vivien Hoyt. “How many of you will be stuck for two hours on Arnold Drive during fires? If you were, you’d be voting differently.”

Talk of 450 units created a significant disparity with the Specific Plan and environmental report submitted to the county by the urban planning firm Dyett & Bhatia, which proposed 1,000 units. The county Planning Commission approved that larger number in early November when it forwarded the project to the supervisors.

In the end, Gorin — a longtime resident of Oakmont north of the Eldridge campus — was able to sway her fellow supervisors. During a straw vote in the late stages of Friday’s debate, she said she was uncomfortable with a housing build of more than 500-600 units.

Supervisor David Rabbitt pushed for 1,000 units, citing consultant Rajeev Bhatia’s argument that lower density would create too large of a profitability gap for each unit, and therefore make the project less desirable to potential developers.

“Is the gap surmountable?” Rabbitt asked. “The county can’t subsidize a development just because we think it’s too many units.”

Board Chair James Gore said he, too, preferred 1,000 units when the meeting began. But when Supervisor Chris Coursey suggested a compromise of 750 units (including any density-bonus units the developer might earn), the board saw a chance to move forward.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins was absent from Friday’s special meeting.

Not all of those who attended the meeting or weighed in via Zoom were arguing for a scaled-down housing supply. Representatives of nonprofit developer Burbank Housing and Generation Housing, an advocacy group, called for greater housing density at SDC.

And Meea Kang, who acknowledged she is part of one of the groups that submitted a bid to the state’s General Services department to act as the site developer, said the plan needs flexibility to grow.

The county shouldn’t “create such constraints that we can’t grow organically,” Kang said. “As a development team, if we are fortunate enough to move forward, there is so much baked into this plan that is absolutely elegant, that is absolutely protective of the open space, the policies around affordable housing. But we do need flexibility to deliver.”

The approved plan bans short-term rentals, an even hotter real estate commodity in Sonoma County after the pandemic.

With a concrete Specific Plan in hand, General Services can move forward in awarding a construction bid. Reportedly, the state has received at least three bids.

Friday’s decision concludes nearly four years of county planning since closure of the sprawling home for Californians with developmental disabilities. It was once the largest employer in Sonoma County, with thousands of workers caring for hundreds of state patients.

It was one of several such state centers ordered to close by former Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration beginning in 2015.

The proposed redevelopment plan, a product of extensive public scoping and meetings over many months, marks the first time a local agency has been given an opportunity to help shape transformation of a defunct state-run institution.

Housing density wasn’t the only issue discussed by the supervisors. They also debated the footprint of the development plan, especially a swath of land at the north end of the property, on either side of Sonoma Creek. Most of building will occur on about 200 acres of the developed campus, with safeguards layered in to protect open space and wildlife habitat.

The board also wrangled over the proposed connector between Arnold Drive and Highway 12 should be a public road or an access route for emergency vehicles only.

The supervisors also spent considerable time pinning down allowances for an on-site hotel. That usage is permitted within the Specific Plan, and is another means of making the overall project economically viable. But Gorin urged a small, boutique accommodation or a small conference center, while Gore and Rabbitt were hesitant to restrict a developer in that way.

After watching the straw vote among the supervisors over Zoom, Sonoma Mayor Sandra Lowe was convinced they had missed the mark on the hotel. She believes her city will see the negative impacts of that business, such as increased traffic, without reaping any of the financial benefits. And she thinks the low-wage jobs a hotel would generate are another miss.

“Why are we not putting something at the Developmental Center that creates incentive for our kids to work there, contribute to the economy and help keep families together?” Lowe said. “Like SDC did. Those jobs had benefits and secure retirements. I think we should not take a step backward from that.”

Certainly, many of the people who have been railing for months against the scope of the county’s plan for SDC will be even more upset by the board’s vote than Lowe. A big question moving forward is whether anyone will sue the county and/or state over the redevelopment.

Sonoma Valley resident Sherry Smith informed the supervisors of a recent Third District Court of Appeals decision in Sacramento, in the case of Save Our Capitol v. Department of General Services, that largely overturned the EIR submitted for a project that would redesign an annex to the State Capitol.

The judge in that case wrote that the EIR’s project description, analyses of historical resources and aesthetics, and analysis of alternatives failed to satisfy the California Environmental Quality Act. Some opponents of a large development at SDC were buoyed by that decision, but Deputy County Counsel Sita Kuteira, when questioned by the supervisors, said she didn’t believe the ruling was likely to apply to the Sonoma Valley project.

Dec. 30 was the deadline for forwarding the project to General Services, which is expected to select a developer in January.

Contact Chase Hunter at and follow @Chase_HunterB on Twitter. Contact Phil Barber at

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