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Santa Rosa’s Bird Rescue Center faces likely relocation

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The first time Jeremy Nichols saw the site of the Bird Rescue Center some 17 years ago, he could tell the land around it in the northeastern Santa Rosa hills was not being used to its full potential, that the Sonoma County-owned site off Chanate Road might be eyed for more development down the road.

“It was obviously underutilized,” said Nichols, now chairman of the center’s board, during a recent interview at the center. “It was clear at that time that something would eventually happen here.”

He was right. The center is one of a handful of nonprofits that will likely need to relocate at some point after the county site is bought by a private developer.

But Nichols thought the center had more time to figure out its next move, even after the possibility of the land’s sale arose more than two years ago.

The center occupies a small portion of a 117-acre campus, much of which is open space, that also once housed the former Sutter Medical Center. After Sutter’s departure in 2014, when it moved to its current location by the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, county officials started exploring how to best make use of the Chanate campus.

That process took its biggest step to date last week, when the Board of Supervisors agreed to move ahead with plans to sell 82 acres of the campus to a developer who wants to build as many as 800 new housing units there.

The future plans likely do not include space for the rescue center, which has spent more than three decades at the site taking care of injured, ill or stranded wild birds. Each year, the center treats and releases about 3,000 birds, and it currently has 19 permanent “residents” — birds that are too injured or too reliant on food to be left in the wild, Nichols said.

It’s not yet clear exactly when the center would need to move. The sale terms would end the county’s leases with all nonprofits at the Chanate site when the property sale is final, which should happen within a few months, according to Caroline Judy, director of the county’s general services department.

But Komron Shahhosseini, project manager for the site’s likely developer, Bill Gallaher, said the development team would be willing to continue the county’s arrangements with the nonprofits at the Chanate site, including the rescue center.

“It’s not like we would move them out immediately. They wouldn’t have to move until we broke ground, and it’s a phased project,” Shahhosseini said. “If and when we enter into contract with the county, I’ll sit down and meet with all the nonprofits that are still residing on the site and talk to them and figure out what their needs are.”

Shahhosseini said nonprofits would be wise to think ahead but stressed that specific details about timing for the project remained “very speculative” until and unless the project goes through the city of Santa Rosa’s planning process.

The rescue center is currently exploring a range of options on public or private lands in the county, Nichols said, but it does not yet know where it’s going to relocate. Wherever it ends up, the facility will be hard-pressed to find another deal as good as the one it has now: The center has paid no rent for the entirety of its time at the Chanate site and did not have to pay its electric bill until 2014, according to Judy.

Encompassing two Quonset huts and an outdoor area used for housing bird enclosures and other functions, the rescue center could ideally use an upgraded space, Nichols said. The aging huts are often too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer.

“They are uninsulated, unheated and uncooled, except for the little bit we’ve put in. But they’re also free,” Nichols said. “The county has let us be here for 35 years for free, so we can hardly complain.”

Nonprofit tenants of the Chanate site were told verbally on multiple occasions since 2014 that the county was looking at a potential sale, and they were notified formally in a January letter that the sales process was progressing, Judy said. Since then, county staff had some discussions with the rescue center about options for a new space but had “nothing firm at this point,” Judy said.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane, whose district includes the Chanate site, said the county appreciated the “wonderful work” of the rescue center.

“They’ve known for a long time that they would have to move, and we’ll certainly help them in any way we can,” Zane said. “But we’re not going to pay for a new place for them.”

Nichols estimated moving the center would cost about $500,000 if it relocated into an existing building and at least $1 million if constructing a new building were necessary. The center is seeking donations to assist with the likely move.

The center could use 6,000 to 8,000 square feet of interior space and at least 1 acre of land, which is more than it has now, Nichols said. An ideal fit, in his view, would be a former veterinarian’s office, which Nichols said would probably come with the proper arrangement of rooms, lighting and other attributes.

Nichols described the county as a “wonderful” landlord and said he had no complaints, despite the uncertain future for the center and the difficulties it may encounter when trying to find a new home.

“That’s part of life,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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