Sonoma Index-Tribune Editorial: A path forward for Sonoma Developmental Center

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

This editorial is from the Sonoma Index-Tribune:

One thing became clear in a meeting with stakeholders on the future of the Sonoma Developmental Center: More time is needed to find the appropriate solution for the 930-acre property, which includes crumbling infrastructure, open space and an ecologically sensitive wildlife corridor. The state’s January deadline for a decision is simply unrealistic.

“No one has had the bandwidth to really give this the attention it needs,” said Eamon O’Byrne, executive director of Sonoma Land Trust. Between disruptions caused by the pandemic and the newness of the process — the state has never before handed over planning of such an asset to a county — he suggested another two years would be reasonable.

“The state has made it very clear the state is not interested in extending the timeline,” Supervisor Gorin responded, adding that a few more months may be feasible, but decisions need to be made soon.

But no one can seem to agree on anything other than the fact that they don’t like the three options presented by county consultants, which each include a hotel, at least 900 units of housing (25% affordable) and open space. The high cost of deferred maintenance adds complication, as it makes popular ideas, like a large amount of affordable housing, less financially realistic.

“How do we go back to the drawing board?” O’Byrne asked.

If recent history has taught us anything, it’s that Sonoma Valley does well when the state and county take a back seat and allow time and space for local voices to find a path forward. Need proof? Just look to Jack London State Historic Park.

In 2012, the state ran short of money to keep all of its majestic parks open. It announced plans to close Jack London park. That was not an option for the Glen Ellen community, so they got to work.

Within a few months, the nonprofit Jack London Park Partners drafted a plan that would allow locals to take over management of the park.

Today, the park is thriving, with more visitors than ever, thanks to a savvy and creative board of directors, nearly 300 volunteers and a slew of moneymaking events, including Transcendence Theatre Company’s seasonal “Broadway Under the Stars.” By the end of the first contract in 2018, the park was back in the black, with money invested in restoration and preservation.

With Jack London, there is a proven track record of succeeding where the state has failed, because the Sonoma Valley community understands local needs.

There’s another lesson to be learned from the park’s relationship with the state. When negotiating the original contract, the state attempted to push deferred maintenance onto the park partners organization. They pushed back, knowing if the dam the state long neglected broke, it should be on the state to fix it.

Once again, it seems, the state is attempting to pass the buck on years of its deferred maintenance, this time at the Sonoma Developmental Center. With more than $100 million of maintenance and remediation required, the financial feasibility of any plan for the site is already in peril. That is why all three alternatives include a hotel, something that seems universally unpopular with the community, but would generate revenue to help cover the cost of restoring the property to meet health and safety standards.

It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, as the state still owns Jack London State Historic Park while it’s looking to sell the developmental center. But the underlying point remains the same: If it broke on the state’s watch, the state should pay to fix it. After all, it’s sitting on a $30 billion surplus.

Can you imagine what might be possible without that financial albatross weighing down potential options for one of the most noteworthy properties in Sonoma County?

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Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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