Sonoma County’s sale of its old Santa Rosa hospital complex has been officially challenged in court by a group that says it represents more than 200 concerned residents, setting up a high-stakes legal battle over the controversial real estate deal intended to generate hundreds of new housing units along Chanate Road.
In a 20-page lawsuit filed Wednesday in Sonoma County Superior Court, the group calling itself Friends of Chanate shed more light on the reasons behind its attempt to unwind the 82-acre property sale, accusing the county of neglecting its legal duty to study possible environmental impacts, abusing state public-meetings requirements and violating the California Constitution, among other claims.
Residents want the court to require the county to set aside its approval of the sale, temporarily block the deal from moving forward and nullify the ordinance authorizing the sale agreement. They also want the county to cover their legal fees.
“The issues that are going to arise from the sale and eventual development of the property were not addressed at all by the county when they sold it,” said Jim Barnes, a member of Friends of Chanate who lives near the site on Cobblestone Drive. “It’s not the developer’s fault; it’s the county’s fault. The county’s the one where the buck stops with them, because the developer got a better deal out of the county than the county got out of the developer.”
The group is represented by attorney Noreen Evans, a former state legislator who ran an unsuccessful campaign last year to represent west Sonoma County on the Board of Supervisors. Evans signed a letter earlier this week informing the county of neighbors’ plans to challenge the sale, which supervisors unanimously approved in July.
Even as a candidate for supervisor, Evans said she had concerns about the way the county was moving toward a sale of the Chanate Road site, which Sutter Health vacated in late 2014 when it moved to its current hospital on Mark West Springs Road.
“It seemed pretty clear that people in the community did not feel they were involved sufficiently in the decision-making process,” Evans said.
The lawsuit characterizes the sprawling Chanate Road property as “prime real estate located in one of the most desirable neighborhoods in Santa Rosa.” It accuses the county of breaking the public’s trust and its own legal responsibilities by “secretly negotiating a sweetheart deal with a well-known local developer,” Bill Gallaher, at the expense of taxpayers.
The lawsuit delves into many of the same themes raised by critics in public comments and other forums this year, including claims the deal was rushed through in a secretive fashion by supervisors, warranted greater public input and environmental review, and the sales price was too low.
County leaders have consistently pushed back on those arguments, contending their process was fair and legal, and the deal provides substantial monetary value for taxpayers while paving the way for the introduction of desperately needed housing units, particularly those affordable to poorer families.
“We believe we followed all of the appropriate procedures. Period,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the board chairwoman whose district includes the old hospital complex. “This is nothing other than a thinly-veiled attempt by the neighbors to try and stop an affordable housing project. We’re deeply disappointed that a clearly recognized community need such as housing for veterans, seniors, working people, is being blocked by a few with vested interests.”