Sonoma Developmental Center future could be determined by new study

The state awarded a $2.1 million contract to help determine how to repurpose the Sonoma Developmental Center, due to close at the end of 2018.|

When the Sonoma Developmental Center closes at the end of next year, it will mark the end of more than 125 years as a state institution for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled.

What will happen next to the 860-acre property and its 142 buildings remains uncertain, as well as how some of its most vulnerable residents will adapt after being evicted.

Suggestions for the sprawling facility have included workforce and affordable housing with dwellings set aside for veterans and the developmentally disabled, small-scale fruit and vegetable production with a farmers market, a large equestrian center or a college satellite campus.

The property’s future is expected to be shaped by a $2.1 million study just underway with a contract awarded to Wallace, Roberts & Todd last month. The well-known planning and design group has helped create public spaces and parks with civic and cultural projects around the country, including Windsor’s Town Green.

The study involves taking inventory and assessing the land and buildings - many vacant or with seismic safety issues - that will inform a broader community dialogue around reuse and recommendations on how to repurpose the SDC. Opportunities for stakeholder and public comment will come later.

“We made a commitment early on, approximately 2 1/2 years ago, the state would launch and execute a holistic review of the campus property and resources in the Sonoma Valley. This is what that study represents,” State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said Tuesday.

“This will give the state and the county and neighbors a clear understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the Sonoma Developmental Center property.”

Beyond the fate of the property and its buildings is the question of human lives.

The facility still employs more than 1,100 full-time workers, including doctors, caseworkers and psychiatric technicians, although there are only 276 developmentally disabled residents remaining, down from a high of more than 3,000.

“This has been a very long, emotionally challenging process, because these are the lives of family members who have been living and working there for generations,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose district encompasses Sonoma Valley. “It has to be done sensitively and move forward very methodically.”

The study is “welcome and long awaited,” said John McCaull, a Sonoma Land Trust official who is part of a coalition that wants to provide opportunities for creative reuse of the Sonoma facility but preserve the natural resources and open space.

The group, which includes Gorin, the Sonoma Ecology Center and the Parent Hospital Association, also wants to maintain critical services for the disabled, perhaps with some remaining on-site.

The state’s plan to close the Eldridge facility, which first opened in 1891 as a home for the “feeble minded,” entails transferring residents into community care homes and programs, a trend for decades in other developmental centers.

The Department of Developmental Services says a system of community regional centers now exists that serves more than 300,000 people, including many with complex medical and behavioral needs mirroring those faced by individuals living at the Sonoma facility.

But families of the remaining residents worry about what will happen when it closes. The residents are suffering from brain injuries, autism, cerebral palsy and other intellectual disabilities.

Among them are many who’ve had trouble fitting into the community model.

“Our concern is the safety and livability of residents as they move into the community,” Gorin said. “Some will flourish and find acceptable living conditions, and others will be very challenged.”

Kathleen Miller of Santa Rosa is a retired social worker whose 50-year-old son has been at SDC for 17 years. Her son suffers from severe autism and other problems, and twice has failed in community care settings.

“What will happen when my son who has mental illness gets kicked out of a home with no developmental center to go back to?” she said. “Will they put him in a more or less locked facility?”

Miller noted a state task force found that 655 regional center clients went to jail in 2015, and 981 went to acute care psychiatric facilities.

Both Gorin and Miller want to see Northern STAR, a five-bed, crisis-care facility at SDC, remain open and perhaps expanded.

The unlocked facility has served as a place to treat developmental center patients having trouble adjusting to community placement, and helps ready them for eventual return to outside care providers.

Advocates say it serves a crucial need by caring for people who might otherwise wind up in jails or hospital psychiatric wards. The clients admitted to the facility are likely at imminent risk of harming themselves or others as a result of serious and potentially life-threatening conditions. They cannot be facing serious criminal charges and stays are limited to a year.

But the state plans to close Northern STAR at the end of 2018 and build three homes of four-to-five beds each in yet-to-be determined Northern California sites to stabilize patients with acute psychiatric issues.

Nancy Lungren, a spokeswoman for the State Department of Developmental Services, said the state also plans to develop acute crisis mobile teams to treat patients in home settings, to help stabilize them and provide mental health treatment on a 24/7 basis.

The state has earmarked $2.5 million to build a specialized health center at the Santa Rosa Community Health Center to provide medical, dental, mental health and adaptive services to disabled residents after they leave SDC.

The property itself has lakes, wooded hills, a residential campground, post office, petting zoo, sports fields, swimming pool, equestrian program and picnic areas.

Gorin said there are development constraints because of groundwater limitations and traffic concerns, and there “will not” be a high-density development.

The site is surrounded by about 12,000 acres of protected lands, including state and county parks, private property with permanent conservation easements and private preserves, according to McCaull, land acquisitions manager for Sonoma Land Trust.

The open space and woodlands are part of a critical link in a wildlife corridor that stretches 85 miles from Lake County to Marin, he said.

McGuire said he is committed to a collaborative, transparent process “where we will empower the county and neighbors to be part of whatever the future holds for the SDC property.

“Any final decision about the future of the SDC campus is ultimately up to the Legislature and the governor,” he said, adding that the county planning process will determine the allowable development.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 707-521-5214 or On Twitter@clarkmas.

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