Sonoma Developmental Center project heads to Board of Supervisors for pivotal vote

The proposed transformation of the storied Eldridge campus would be one of the largest redevelopments of public property in county history. It’s headed for a key vote Friday.|

How to attend the meeting

When: 10 a.m.

Where: 575 Administration Drive, Santa Rosa

To view the meeting, go to

The proposed transformation of the storied Sonoma Development Center campus could be one of the most ambitious and large-scale redevelopments of public property in Sonoma County history.

It would add hundreds of homes to help with the region’s chronic housing shortage while preserving much of the property’s open space and wildlife habitat, but would severely test existing infrastructure.

And Friday, Sonoma County supervisors will be voting on the Specific Plan and environmental impact report that could go a long way in shaping the future of the Glen Ellen landmark.

Supervisor Susan Gorin, vacationing in the mountains near Lake Tahoe, was snowed in when reached by phone Wednesday. But she’ll do everything she can to show up in person for Friday’s meeting, she said.

“Friday’s meaning is very important,” Gorin said.

“It’s only the second time the Board of Supervisors will have a chance to discuss the issues emerging in the Specific Plan. The county and the board feel a tension between what the state would like to see, in terms of economic feasibility, and what the community wants to see, which is a significantly reduced scale of development.”

That tension has always been at the heart of debate over how best to use the historic, scenic and beloved 945-acre property that housed Californians with developmental disabilities for 127 years before it closed in 2018.

The furor has only increased over the past year as the project — one the largest redevelopment opportunities in county history — advanced through community town halls, scoping sessions and government meetings.

Most recently, the Sonoma County Planning Commission voted 4-1 on Nov. 7 to approve, with a few recommended edits, the environmental report and Specific Plan produced for the county by the firm Dyett & Bhatia.

The Board of Supervisors will now consider those documents. If the four supervisors (Lynda Hopkins is expected to miss the meeting) give their approval, with or without amendments, the California Department of General Services will move forward in selecting a developer.

In the past, the state has acted unilaterally when disposing of former state-owned institutional properties. The state General Services department will make the final decision on Sonoma Developmental Center, too, but is allowing Sonoma County an unprecedented opportunity to help shape the project.

That’s why the county is insisting the scope of the building be attractive to developers, with as many as 1,000 housing units on the core campus.

That number is unacceptable to a vocal contingent of Sonoma Valley residents, who cite concerns about traffic, emergency evacuations, ecological degradation and the upending of a bucolic way of life.

The Glen Ellen Historical Society, for example, is arguing for 470 housing units and the creation of an “independent special district” that would give an elected governing body autonomy over SDC decisions.

On Nov. 16, four Glen Ellen residents met with Department of General Services associate construction analyst Gerald McLaughlin in Sacramento to discuss the concept, as Teresa Murphy of the historical society wrote in the Kenwood Press.

Sonoma Mountain Preservation is similarly opposed to the 1,000 units called for in the proposal, a mix of multifamily, single-family attached units (town houses and duplexes) and single-family detached houses.

“The scale of proposed redevelopment of the 180-acre core campus is fundamentally incompatible with the limited access and rural character of the surrounding community and the north Sonoma Valley,” the group’s chair, Meg Beeler, wrote to the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 9.

The Sierra Club’s Sonoma Group weighed in Wednesday with its own letter to the supervisors, urging them to reject the Specific Plan “in its current and widely unpopular form.” That letter calls the Specific Plan inconsistent with the county’s General Plan, argues that the proposed fire codes are inadequate to protect lives and property, and claims Dyett & Bhatia failed to sufficiently analyze vehicle traffic projections.

Similar complaints have been voiced at every step of approval. But Permit Sonoma, which is managing the process for the county, has steadfastly insisted that SDC is a rare chance to add desperately needed affordable and midmarket housing in Sonoma County, and that planners are addressing safety and density concerns.

Sonoma Land Trust has had its doubts, too, about the scale of the project. But the amendments urged by the Planning Commission in November, which included the addition or expansion of setbacks to protect Sonoma and Mill creeks, have its staff members feeling more optimistic.

“Those developments are very, very encouraging,” said Eamon O’Byrne, executive director of the nonprofit land trust. “I really think now it’s down to the decision the Board of Supervisors wants to make. It’s kind of tough to have a firm position on something when you’re missing one of the key elements, which is the developer.”

The Department of General Services has received three bids for the project, and aims to choose one of them in January.

The state office declined to release information on the bids, saying it would compromise the negotiation process.

The Glen Ellen Historical Society has acknowledged it spearheaded one of the bids, a low-development plan that emphasizes historic and environmental preservation. And the Sonoma Land Trust shared its data for a bid that involves the Council of Infill Builders, a nonprofit organization that advocates for denser home building, according to O’Byrne.

The developer rumored to be behind the third bid declined to comment, and The Press Democrat could not independently confirm his involvement.

Sonoma Land Trust is hoping that when the Department of General Services selects a winning proposal, the county will commission a project-specific environmental impact report so that stakeholders can more accurately gauge the effects. Such a study would take additional time and money.

But it’s a step the Board of Supervisors can demand, O’Byrne said.

“It would close the loop and we could all talk about it in a meaningful way,” he said. “Instead of hypotheticals.”

Gorin, in her third term on the board, where she has often been a dissenting voice on controversial land-use projects, said she remains uncomfortable with the overall size of the redevelopment — especially considering the possibility of additional granny units and a 120-room hotel.

“So you’ve got a number of other folks potentially living short term and long term on campus,” Gorin said. “I think the EIR has tried to evaluate the impact of 1,000 units, but there’s less specificity with additional units.”

She also doesn’t want to lose sight of the “tens of millions of dollars” the county will have to absorb to develop transit service, connectors, trail maintenance, parking and restrooms to service a redeveloped SDC campus.

Gorin said she will do what she can Friday to persuade her fellow supervisors to address those issues. She will also advocate for requiring a conditional use permit for the hotel, which she believes should be a small, midpriced facility rather than a large conference center or resort.

After years of visions and tussles, Gorin also knows Friday will not be the last word on this project.

“Nothing will happen overnight,” she said. “We’ll negotiate with the state, and we’ll both negotiate a developer agreement. Most likely, we’ll have to go through amendments to the Specific Plan and, potentially, amendments to the EIR. The Design Review Board will have a chance to weigh in.

“This meeting Friday is important, but it’s not the end.”

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

How to attend the meeting

When: 10 a.m.

Where: 575 Administration Drive, Santa Rosa

To view the meeting, go to

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