Charting path for developmental center’s site

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A coalition led by the Sonoma Land Trust has launched an intensive review of potential uses for nearly 1,000 acres of prime real estate and the buildings that make up the Sonoma Developmental Center should the state close the facility.

Dubbed the “Transform SDC Project,” the 18-month review includes a series of public meetings for people to weigh in on the center’s future. The first meeting is scheduled for May 2 in Sonoma.

“We’re hoping anyone that cares about SDC will see this as the place to bring their ideas,” said John McCaull, the Sonoma Valley land acquisitions project manager for the Land Trust.

The center near Glen Ellen is battling declining admissions, licensing problems and calls to shut down to save taxpayers money. But what to do with the campus, which includes 145 buildings, and pristine grounds surrounding it is the source of an intensifying political and land-use battle.

About 400 or so developmentally disabled people still reside at the center and receive around-the-clock care there. With about 1,300 employees, the center also is Sonoma Valley’s largest employer.

One model being touted for the center’s future use is for a government entity to maintain ownership of the buildings and lease space to generate revenue. The surrounding property under this vision would be maintained as open space or become additions to nearby county or state parks.

Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, who is leading the local coalition, confirmed that Santa Rosa Junior College has expressed interest in creating a satellite campus at the site. But Gorin, whose district includes the center, said those conversations are in the early stages.

“It’s just one of the ideas floating around,” she said.

Gorin and McCaull cited the Presidio in San Francisco as an example of what the developmental center may one day become. The former Army post is under the management of the National Park Service and the Presidio Trust, a federal agency charged with preserving the site’s natural, cultural, scenic and recreational resources.

McCaull said one scenario the coalition is hoping to avoid is the state declaring the center’s assets surplus property and selling them off whole or in part for development. Private interests have floated proposals for the site over the years. But none of those plans ever gained traction.

Gorin said developer Darius Anderson, a principal owner of Sonoma Media Investments, told her he has no interest in the property. She said the pair “chuckle about the rumors out there that he and I are conspiring to develop an expensive resort or casino” on the property.

Anderson, whose holdings include The Press Democrat, confirmed the conversation with Gorin.

“Susan asked if I was interested in the property. I said, ‘I have no interest in the property, nor will I ever be interested in the property,’ ” Anderson said. “I would hope that whatever comes out of the process is in the best interests of the community and all the constituencies that have a vested interest in that property.”

Anderson cited a number of challenges for any developer who has interest in the site, including the historic buildings, traffic concerns and the site’s “appropriate use.”

The developmental center property is zoned for public facility use, and Gorin, who is chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors, has said any changes to that designation would require amending the county’s general plan.

The site is at the heart of the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor, linking more than 9,000 acres of protected land running west to east from Sonoma Mountain to the Mayacamas mountains. The property also is a bridge between Jack London State Historic Park and Sonoma Valley Regional Park.

Deer, mountain lion, coyote, bobcat and rare species that include steelhead trout, northern spotted owl and California red-legged frog live on or frequent the site. Sonoma Creek, which runs through the center’s property for about three-quarters of a mile, is one of the county’s most significant streams for steelhead.

In 2002, the state transferred about 600 acres from the developmental center site to Jack London park after the state abandoned a plan to lease the property for vineyards. That proposal fell through amid concerns that the agricultural use could pollute the center’s watershed.

In 2007, the state sold 40 acres of land to the Open Space District for $600,000 to expand the size of Sonoma Valley Regional Park.

A state task force last year recommended closing or dramatically downsizing the state’s three remaining developmental centers in favor of smaller, crisis-intervention facilities, with longer-term care provided in partnership with regional centers and other community-based programs.

But critics of developmental centers are demanding that they simply be shut.

Sen. Jeff Stone, R-Temecula, has introduced legislation calling on the state to shut the Sonoma Developmental Center and a similar facility in Orange County no later than Dec. 31, 2018, and diverting the money spent to operate the institutions to community-based regional centers.

The bill is scheduled to be heard Tuesday in the Senate’s Health Services Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Mike McGuire .

McGuire opposes the bill, and he has signaled support for the local coalition’s efforts.

The Land Trust’s partners include Sonoma’s Parent Hospital Association, the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District and the Sonoma Ecology Center.

McCaull said the Land Trust has marshaled about $560,000 in grants and private donations to underwrite the initial phases of the study. That includes $300,000 from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

The group has retained the Center for Collaborative Policy to facilitate the meeting process. Next Saturday’s meeting is from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Vintage House in Sonoma. Organizers are asking people to RSVP at sonomalandtrust.org.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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