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Isaac Gentry, assistant building manager for Sonoma County General Services shines a light on wiring that was pulled out by copper thieves in the emergency room at the old Community Hospital, Thursday, August 15, 2019 in Santa Rosa. The interior of the hospital has been ransacked by various individuals since the facility was shuttered. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2019

After second setback with Chanate property, Sonoma County is left to consider dwindling options

As buildings on the Chanate Road campus slip further into disrepair and now with the latest buyer backing out, Sonoma County is left to reconsider its options: Sell now or pour millions of dollars into cleanup for future development?

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T he lights don’t work anymore inside the old county hospital.

Shafts of dusty daylight illuminate graffiti-covered walls, courtesy of a vandal’s latest attempt to break in — a hole in a window, a hole in a board.

The darkness makes it difficult to watch your step.

Piles of wires, long since stripped of their valuable copper, line the hallways. Broken glass crunches underfoot. Dirty needles — left on the floors here long after the hospital closed a five years ago — are a lingering danger.

This abandoned building and the 72-acre county health care campus it occupies in northeast Santa Rosa, home now to just a few functioning county offices, among them the morgue, has become a quagmire in the region’s fitful bid to ramp up housing creation.

For county officials hoping to sell the site, developers angling to scoop it up and many neighbors who have opposed or scrutinized such deals in the past three years, it has become a cautionary tale.

That was brought into even sharper relief this past week, after the latest group in line to buy the site, demolish the buildings and erect hundreds of affordable housing units, walked away from the deal.

The previous buyer, a high-powered local developer, lost out after neighbors opposed to the sale prevailed in court, sending the county back to the drawing board.

It has been 15 years since Sutter Health announced it would leave the campus and five years since it moved out of the former community hospital to its gleaming new facility off Mark West Springs Road.

Caroline Judy, the county’s general services director, and her staff, have invested hundreds of hours in plans for the site’s future. Taxpayers also have paid heavily to secure the open, largely vacant campus. Those costs reached $768,000 in 2018-19 — up from $33,500 in 2015-16. Over the past four years, the total cost comes to more than $1 million.

And still, people are getting in. They’re leaving behind clothes, bike parts, simple and ornate graffiti, and the occasional dirty needle.

County officials still speak of the property with hope, touting the possibility of a future deal. Even on Wednesday, after the latest setback, Supervisor James Gore called the site, albeit without its crumbling buildings, “a true asset.”

But it is also clear that years into a county-led process meant to help with the housing crunch — a quest that supervisors at one point thought should have been easy — the board has become battered and bruised in the face of an intractable challenge.

“The board is simply exhausted,” Supervisor Susan Gorin said.

Property in limbo

They knew this property was going to be empty. Then, to blame us ... because they can’t get their act together is gratuitous at best.Tom Brown, who is a member of Friends of Chanate, which recently blocked a county development deal for the property

There are 17 buildings on the hillside campus situated along both sides of the 3300 block of Chanate Road. All but three of them are abandoned.

Ten undeveloped acres of oak forest and meadow have been set aside for open space, along with a historic 1-acre cemetery. The rest is up for sale.

That 71.6-acre spread, shaped like a crab claw, has for years been eyed within the halls of county government for future housing development. It is one of three now-vacant county properties, including the former Water Agency site on West College Avenue, that officials had hoped to offer up for speedy development of up to 1,200 housing units.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane, whose district includes the Chanate campus, folded those plans into her adopted slogan several years ago.

“Build, baby, build.”

She would become a key champion of the former proposal for 867 units that fell to a court challenge from neighbors last year, sending the county back to square one.

From inside the ransacked nearly 300,000-square-foot hospital on the north side of the campus, it’s clear that any dream of expedience in transforming this property has been dashed.

Judy, the general services director whose department oversees county real estate, grumbled about the dilapidated state of the Chanate buildings. She thinks the county should have torn them down years ago, when they knew retrofitting them to make them seismically safe was cost-prohibitive.

Supervisors will have the option to make that choice Tuesday, when they’ll evaluate at their board meeting a variety of options leftover in the fallout of another buyer walking away.

“I still consider it a gift to the community,” Zane said of the property and the promise of housing. “The most important thing for county is to continue to move forward to mitigate some of the expenses on security that exist there now. I’m going to remain optimistic.”

Neighbors said they don’t necessarily disagree with the county’s plans for housing, and many have acknowledged something needs to be built on the site.

Tom Brown, who lives a few blocks from the campus, said the mission of Friends of Chanate, which blocked the previous deal with its successful lawsuit, has always been about appropriate development.

“We have felt, as long as it was vacant, it was a risk,” Brown said.

Traffic volume and the narrow travel corridor that exists to serve any mass evacuation are key concerns in the forested, fire-prone area. The 2017 firestorm stopped short of the neighborhood. Development that adds danger for residents is “a killer for most people,” Brown said.

“There’s no way to widen the road,” he said. “Traffic circles and wishful thinking isn’t going to do it.”

Brown said the neighbors never wanted to sue, and their court fight to unravel the $11.5 million sale to Oakmont Senior Living — owned by Sonoma County developer Bill Gallaher — was their only option, he said.

The latest proposal — a sale to California Community Housing Agency, which promised 100% affordable units — felt like more of the same, he said — a backroom deal between elected officials and developers.

Brown doesn’t have much patience for the blame lobbed previously by Zane and others, who’ve accused neighbors of standing in the way of much-needed housing.

“Frankly, they’ve sat on their hands for a decade,” Brown said. “They knew this property was going to be empty. Then, to blame us ... because they can’t get their act together is gratuitous at best.”

Costly site security

Flashlight beams bounced along the hallways, dancing over shimmering broken glass Thursday morning during a three-hour tour of the old hospital and two other buildings on the Chanate property.

Judy and a couple of county staffers joined Zane to survey the damage wrought during years of abandonment.

In the darkened ceiling on the hospital’s first floor, a regular series of holes had been punched in the drywall — the better to pull leftover copper wiring and wring any value from the worn-out structure.

In the center of the old cafeteria sat a pile of old office telephones, their cords and receivers criss-crossed in a haphazard web.

Isaac Gentry, a county building services manager, swung open a door to the outside. The hinge let out a scream and sunlight streamed in.

A contracted security guard paced around the perimeter of the 83-year-old hospital building. He waved and smiled.

Sonoma County will spend nearly $500,000 this year on security guards and patrols dedicated to watching for fire. That’s a new requirement, from the Santa Rosa Fire Marshall, after copper thieves made some of the buildings’ fire sprinkler systems inoperable, county officials say.

Counting the metal screens on doors and other so-called “hardening” measures, the county will spend about $800,000 this year, with another $500,000-plus planned between November and June 2020. Officials say the barriers are regularly breached or destroyed.

Bob Pittman, an attorney with the County Counsel’s Office who has taken the lead on the Chanate Road property, said the county has gone above and beyond legal requirements for securing the property.

“They’ve taken extraordinary measures to keep out rather determined vandals,” Pittman said of the county. “Some of the attempts and break-ins were very sophisticated. Even with double barriers, people came in and were in and out in minutes.”

Decades ago, Zane was a hospital chaplain here, making the trip up Chanate Road about three times each week. On Thursday, when she got to the threshold of the old psychiatric ward annex, an active living space for transients with its stink clinging to the thick, wet morning air, Zane paused.

She was wearing a Tyvek body suit to protect against toxic materials thought to exist in the buildings, including asbestos. A respirator covered her mouth and nose.

“I don’t think I want to go in,” she said.

Latest buyer bails

In 2016, the future of the site looked promising. Gallaher, through his development company Oakmont Senior Living, touted a “beautiful, walkable and sustainable community.”

For a maximum price of $11.5 million, Gallaher’s plan would have repurposed the old hospital and offered a mix of more than 800 market and affordable units connected by shared space, including a neighborhood garden, trails and a dog park.

But the detail in Gallaher’s nearly 100-page purchase proposal made it a development plan in the eyes of neighbors, who argued in court that it needed a full-blown environmental review.

To me, Chanate has brought up a lot of bad blood. But I refuse to see us do the wrong thing just because we’ve been working on it a long time and it’s complex.County Supervisor James Gore

A Sonoma County judge agreed in July last year, and in December supervisors scuttled their deal with Gallaher. Two months later, they issued a new request for proposals for buyers that could deliver affordable housing on the site.

Gallaher submitted another bid, this time lighter on details and for less money — $9 million — but was passed over by county staff in favor of California Community Housing Agency, a newly formed government entity out of Kings County.

The agency and its private partners promised to use municipal bonds to finance the development of up to 750 units, all of them affordable.

The complex deal offered a $1 purchase, as well as equity in the future project, including a $5 million advance. In 15 years, the county could reacquire the property, cash in on the roughly $84 million in projected equity and resell the site.

But as the Board of Supervisors was poised to cast its vote on the deal, the selected bidders grew leery of potential delays in the two-part, county-city approval process, as well as the prospect of a court fight with neighbors.

A July 23 board vote was postponed twice, to Aug. 20, but the buyers notified the county they were out on Tuesday, according to multiple county officials.

Both the withdrawn bid and the prior proposal from Gallaher would have represented the single largest Santa Rosa housing project in a generation — and much-needed stock in a county that lost more than 5,300 homes in the deadly 2017 wildfires.

The bids from Gallaher and another developer, EAH Housing of San Rafael, which offered up to $11.7 million, still stand.

The county could look at those bids again, said Board Chairman David Rabbitt, or it could go in another direction — demolishing the buildings itself to make the site more attractive and valuable in a future deal.

“To me, Chanate has brought up a lot of bad blood,” said Supervisor Gore. “But I refuse to see us do the wrong thing just because we’ve been working on it a long time and it’s complex.”

Timeline: Chanate Road hospital complex: 1996-2019

Demolish and redevelop?

What will happen Tuesday?

“You will definitely see action on this Tuesday,” Zane said, her respirator pulled down to her neck Thursday as she prepared to leave the site following the tour. “It’s past time.”

County officials say it would cost $6 million just to demolish the hospital building, a 2015 estimate that is likely conservative.

“For me, if we can put the necessary time into clearing the property, then whether it becomes government buildings or housing or any other use, if we remove those liabilities, it’s back to a true asset,” Gore said.

And that asset could be used for a variety of things: A new county government headquarters, which would open up current county property near Steele Lane and Mendocino Avenue for affordable housing. That scenario was advanced by Zane this past week, and Supervisors Lynda Hopkins and Gore said they would consider it.

It’s not my job to blame. It’s my job to work toward the best outcome for the property.County Supervisor Shirlee Zane

But Rabbitt laughed in exasperation and Gorin voiced opposition.

“I want to sell it to someone and go on,” Gorin said.

Brown said the idea of bringing 4,000-plus county employees into the area sounded more like a threat to neighbors than a legitimate proposal.

Rabbitt said he’s not sure what neighbors would support.

“From the neighbors’ standpoint, what is it they really want?” Rabbitt said.

They want a seat at the table, Brown said.

“I think the fact is, having gone this route twice, there’s a deep loss of trust,” he said. “We can disagree on what ought to be there. But it just doesn’t feel like we’ve been drawn into it.”

Neighbors are a convenient target for the county’s cudgel, especially in the wake of another failure to offload the property. But Zane, who is running for her fourth term on the board next year and faces what could be her strongest rival yet in former Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey, said she has changed since shaking her finger at neighbors last year for upending the county’s plans.

“That was in the past,” Zane said. “It’s not my job to blame. It’s my job to work toward the best outcome for the property.”

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or at tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @tylersilvy.

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