Close to Home: Don’t sell Chanate Road site short

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Housing advocates welcome the initial steps taken last week by Sonoma County supervisors to increase the availability of affordable housing.

But we’re concerned by the request for proposals issued last month by the county for its 100-plus-acre site on Chanate Road in Santa Rosa. If the supervisors select the proposal submitted by the highest bidder, we’ll likely see dozens more million-dollar homes there. Will the supervisors walk their talk and come up with a development plan that helps address this unprecedented housing shortage?

For a century, the county land at Chanate has been devoted to serving the health and housing needs of economically disadvantaged residents. There are many perfectly usable buildings on the site. Most, like the mental health facilities, the Wellness Center and the well-designed shelter for women and children, are currently in use. County officials claim the two former Sutter hospital buildings are not earthquake safe and want them demolished. But earthquake standards for hospitals are much stricter than they are for residential uses. Repurposing older buildings is normally vastly less expensive than tearing them down and starting from scratch.

“Housing First” is official county policy for reducing the huge numbers of homeless persons in and around Santa Rosa. The shelter at Chanate should be preserved. Supervisor Shirlee Zane, in a Close to Home column published here recently, cited the dire shortage of county emergency mental health services. Some new facilities are being opened, but will these new facilities be adequate? Why sell off the facilities at Chanate before we know?

The Sonoma Developmental Center in Glen Elen soon will be closing and evicting hundreds of severely mentally disabled residents. There’s essentially no place where these residents can receive adequate care. Couldn’t the mental health facilities at Chanate be used to provide housing for some of them?

County officials have said that proceeds from selling the Chanate property will help fund construction of new county office buildings down the hill on Administration Drive, which will make services there more convenient and accessible. But is that convenience more important than addressing the housing crisis and urgent health needs which this site has and could continue to do? If not at the Chanate site with land and buildings already zoned and used for these purposes, then where, when and how?

Many public employees working in the county’s administration complex and at the Santa Rosa Junior College campus a few blocks away can’t find housing in Santa Rosa that they can afford. Many drive long distances to work. Why not build workforce housing at Chanate, with a preference for rentals for public employees? Tons of toxic greenhouse gas pollutants would be saved if these public employees could walk or bike to work instead of driving daily commutes from far away.

Around half of the land at Chanate is on or near hillsides and should be preserved as open space. Private developers may see preservation as cutting into their potential profits. But open space is essential for the neighborhood and for the community as a whole.

The county should not just sell off this wonderful property at Chanate to the highest bidder. We hope the county will insist on a development plan to meet urgent housing and public health needs as it has for the past century, provide workforce housing for public employees and affordable housing for lower income families. Save and expand the family homeless shelter, save the mental health facilities. And, yes, keep that wonderful Bird Rescue Center, which has been on the property for decades. Injured birds need a home, too.

David Grabill is general counsel for the Sonoma County Housing Advocacy Group.

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