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How to participate

Sonoma Developmental Center Community Workshop

Saturday, June 23, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Hanna Boys Center, Auditorium

17000 Arnold Dr. in Sonoma

With Sonoma Developmental Center slated to close at the end of December, neighbors are asking one question: What next for the Sonoma Valley gem?

During a public meeting this morning in the city of Sonoma, they’ll begin to help shape the answer.

A consultant today will present the initial results from an exhaustive analysis of the sprawling property, confirming that the buildings and infrastructure at the 125-year-old campus are in dire shape and need nearly $115 million in just infrastructural system repairs.

“Some of the strengths are that we’re dealing with a century’s old campus, and some of the weaknesses are that we’re dealing with a century’s old campus,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg. “The most pressing need is to conduct a thorough and transparent community engagement process. This is the first step.”

The study, which will be shaped by public input today and finalized in July, lays out a range of options for the property, including affordable housing and commercial retail and office spaces, to a satellite college campus and equestrian center. Others hope the existing land and water features, which play a key role for the wildlife corridor that links Lake and Marin counties, can be preserved through annexation by the adjacent state and regional parks.

A variety of uses are possible given the size of the parcel. The goal of local and state officials is to ensure the community has a say in what’s almost certain to be a multiyear master planning process.

“The future of the Sonoma Developmental Center needs to be driven by local input,” said state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa. “It’s critical that the state listen to Sonoma Valley residents on open space protection and potential uses for the core campus. The site assessment will provide the community with a benchmark that will help inform that dialogue and decision making.”

The 860-acre Eldridge property is cherished by many. Its values include scenic, tree-lined vistas of the Mayacmas Mountains, a vast network of tributaries and system of developed recreational trails. It’s also served as home to thousands of developmentally disabled residents, but will shut its doors on Dec. 31 because of quality-of-care and state budgetary concerns.

Rather than just sell the one-of-a-kind expanse, the state chose to open a process that asked area residents to help decide its future. To come up with solutions, the agency overseeing the SDC’s transition commissioned a $2.1 million study in April 2017 to get a full picture of the site’s assets, liabilities and potential reuse alternatives.

That process was delayed several months after the October wildfires, which also affected the SDC campus. Of its 142 buildings, some three-dozen — including a handful of staff homes — were destroyed in the Nuns fire.

But the center, which still has 84 residents, is on track to close in six months. Some with personal ties to the specialty care facility are already mourning its loss.

“To many of us whose loved ones have lived here, and some who have died at SDC, this is sacred land,” said Kathleen Miller, co-president of a developmentally disabled advocacy group, at a public meeting on the transition last month. “It will take time for some of us to fully deal with the loss of Sonoma Developmental Center. Knowing that there are local voices who will weigh in on what happens at the site will help.”

How to participate

Sonoma Developmental Center Community Workshop

Saturday, June 23, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Hanna Boys Center, Auditorium

17000 Arnold Dr. in Sonoma

Once the last residents have vacated the site, $8 million from the state budget will maintain operations at a bare bones level through June 2019. Then it’s a matter of finding the next funding source for whatever comes next.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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