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PD Editorial: Sale of former Santa Rosa hospital site needs more time

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There are plenty of positives to be found in a proposal now before the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to sell off the old Sutter Hospital site and the 82 acres surrounding it to a local developer.

The project proposed by Bill Gallaher, the man behind the Varenna and Fountaingrove Lodge retirement complexes off Fountaingrove Parkway, calls for the construction of up to 800 houses and apartments. This comes at a time when Sonoma County is in dire need of both.

What’s needed in particular is affordable housing, and the project includes a good deal of that as well. The proposal indicates that 20 percent of the housing units would be offered at prices that are affordable to residents with very low incomes. Some of the homes also would be reserved for seniors and veterans.

The plan calls for selling the property for $6 million for the construction of the first 400 residential units. After that, the price for the property would increase with each additional unit built up to 800 homes for a potential total sales price of $12.5 million.

The plan also includes 68 acres of open space and a recreation center, a dog park, an amphitheater and something the neighborhood has needed — a grocery store. All good stuff.

But the proposal comes with so many questions and unknowns that it’s hard to imagine how the supervisors could properly evaluate it in time to take a final vote on it this afternoon as is proposed. Plus, given that the public has had but a few days to see the proposal and read the county’s evaluation, it’s questionable whether the supervisors should proceed so soon even if they could. After all, this represents the largest sale of publicly owned land in years, and it’s hard to imagine another sale of such a large swath of surplus property will be coming along anytime soon. It’s important that the county takes its time.

That’s not to suggest that this has been a rushed process. It’s been more than two years since Sutter Hospital vacated the site and moved into its new home at Highway 101 and Mark West Springs Road.

While trying to determine the future of the site, county officials took a major step forward a year ago when they issued a request for proposals on the county’s desires for the site. Two bids came back in May and members of a committee created to evaluate the proposals chose the one from Gallaher. (Full disclosure: Gallaher is in the process of suing The Press Democrat for defamation over coverage related to a separate story concerning contributions to Santa Rosa City Council candidates).

But since the request for proposals went out a year ago, there’s been limited opportunity for community involvement in the process. In fact, today will mark the first hearing on these final proposals.

As we said above, many questions remain concerning the impacts of traffic, the pricing of the housing units, access to the parks and open space areas and concerns about seismic activity given that the property straddles the Rodgers Creek fault, the primary reason why Sutter was forced to decide whether to seismically upgrade the Chanate property or move. It chose the latter.

It’s also not clear why county officials preferred the Gallaher proposal to one proposed by former Petaluma Planning Commission chairman Curt Johanson. This public deserves a better understanding of the pros and cons of both bids.

We recognize that there are more public hearings to come in the days ahead as this project still requires review and approval by Santa Rosa officials who have final say given that this county-owned property is inside city limits. But for the county, today’s decision marks a major step in selling off a significant piece of public land. It needs to get this right, and it needs to make sure the public has the answers it needs on why this is the best proposal for this historic property.

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