Sonoma County signs on $40 million state deal on Sonoma Developmental Center

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Sonoma County supervisors approved a $40 million state-funded plan to plot the future of the Sonoma Developmental Center on Friday before an appreciative crowd of residents, state lawmakers and officials who have worked for years to assure the prized property would not fall to ruin in the wake of its closure after 128 years of service to residents.

The four supervisors present voted in favor of a so-called “hybrid process” in which the state will pay up to $13 million a year for three years to maintain the 880-acre property, including 700 acres of open space, while the county crafts a development plan for the land and its aging facilities, built as far back as the 1800s.

“This is sacred property for many people for many reasons,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, one of three legislators who helped broker the deal.

“This is historic,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, who represents Sonoma Valley, thanking everyone responsible for bringing “an amazing experience before us today that will unleash the future of the developmental center.”

The redeveloped property will provide housing and jobs, she said, noting the center was once Sonoma County’s largest employer.

Richard Dale of the Sonoma Environmental Center, one of the stakeholders in charting the center’s future, said the commitment to local planning was “a very different scenario than we were expecting.”

“We actually have a chance to do something right,” he said.

Largely unspoken in the euphoria of the moment, however, were concerns about funding and security at the largely vacant site south of Glen Ellen.

Sonoma County has suffered missteps in efforts to sell both a former water agency property and the Chanate hospital site, forced in both cases to start the process over.

Also, the state’s contribution, including the maintenance costs plus $3.5 million to fund the county planning process, appears to be limited. The county will hire a consulting firm to develop the plan and an environmental assessment.

When Supervisor Shirlee Zane asked what would happen if the state funding fails to cover the costs of security, landscape maintenance and fire prevention, Daniel Kim, director of the state General Services Department, said he “could not speak to dollars.”

Zane noted that the county faces “big budget cuts” coming up.

A state-funded study determined the property needed nearly $115 million in infrastructure repairs to meet modern codes, while a majority of its 140 buildings would require millions of dollars in seismic upgrades.

Board Chairman David Rabbitt said in an interview the supervisors were aware of the potential financial liabilities involved in the process.

“The last thing we want is for the state to throw this thing back in our laps,” he said.

If there is a cost overrun, Rabbitt said, “we can work with our partners in Sacramento.”

The sale will be handled by the state, he said.

Nearly four years ago, the state announced plans to shutter the Sonoma facility and two others like it in Central and Southern California. The local center closed in December after all of its remaining residents were moved to community-based homes as the state revamped services to developmentally disabled adults.

In July, the Department of Developmental Services is scheduled to transfer the center to Kim’s agency, which will handle the property sale anticipated in 2022.

Kim praised the county-state collaboration on the disposition of state property, calling it “unlike any process we’ve done before.”

Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, D-Winters, said Friday’s action was “just the beginning of a very exciting phase.”

Community involvement and preservation of open space “will be central to the plan” for the property, she said.

State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, was also involved in negotiating the deal.

Housing developed on the land would help the county address the shortage exacerbated by the 2017 wildfires that destroyed about 5,300 homes, county officials said.

Environmentalists value the property’s 700 acres of open space, sandwiched between a county and a state park, forming a critical wildlife corridor. Woodlands, meadows and a creek offer habitat for mountain lions, golden eagles, spotted owls and threatened steelhead trout.

Kathleen Miller, co-president of the Parent Hospital Association, a group that fought to keep the center open, said she had no objection to the plan.

Miller said she was gratified to learn it included preservation of the open space as well as a memorial wall commemorating the 1,400 residents buried in the cemetery on the property.

“We’re very happy about that,” she said of the memorial.

Miller said, however, the property needs overnight police protection.

Responding to comments from the audience that security was inadequate, McGuire said four full-time peace officers are assigned to the campus, and CHP patrols will continue.

Kim said his agency’s decision not to fence off the property, a prospect residents protested, compromises security to some degree.

Near the end of the two-hour meeting, focused entirely on the developmental center deal, Rabbitt noted that a land use plan and environmental assessment must be completed before the land can be sold.

“Sonoma County needs to get the ball rolling,” he said, noting that three years “can go by pretty quick.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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