Opinion: Heart of Sonoma Valley at risk of urbanization?
The future of the 945-acre expanse of open space lands and historic campus in the heart of Sonoma Valley at the former Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC), also known as Eldridge (next to Glen Ellen), remains uncertain after public hearings on county plans to create a new town. The plans are widely opposed due to the size and scale of the proposed development. The abandoned campus is surrounded by open space, agricultural lands and voter-approved community separator greenbelts.
At the end of 2021, Sonoma County planners released three similar variations of urban-style development on the historic campus that features 1,000 homes, a new hotel, restaurants, and commercial and office space, and a new road. The draft plans were intended as the foundation for developing a county SDC Specific Plan that will get environmental review.
The plans were widely opposed by environmentalists, housing advocates, labor, community groups and the public at large. Hundreds of letters were lodged with the county and state. The Sonoma City Council and Sonoma Valley’s two county-appointed Municipal Advisory Councils, and the public opposed the plans and made recommendations. Many are also asking that the land remain in public hands and not be sold to a developer.
The North Valley Municipal Advisory Council is calling for 450 or fewer housing units that are at least 75 percent affordable. The MAC submitted a letter with detailed recommendations that was supported by more than 1,400 people who signed a petition in favor.
Change of course?
At the end of a three-hour supervisors meeting with about 50 people calling for a change of course at SDC on Jan. 25, Supervisor Susan Gorin directed county planners to revise the proposed plans to incorporate public comment to better protect open space and the wildlife corridor, scale back housing and increase affordability, and seek funding for state-of-the-art redevelopment of the historic campus, ideally through a public or non-profit trust and not by sale to a private developer.
Environmentalists called for immediate transfer of open space lands to parks. Housing advocates called for more affordable housing and less, if any, market rate homes. Labor called for a Community Benefits Agreement at the site. In a surprise twist, political operative Doug Bosco was allowed to speak first in public comment to pitch a climate research center at SDC, that might be funded by the Coastal Conservancy, of which he is chair. No one spoke in support of the proposed plans.
In response, Gorin made a strong case for reducing the housing units proposed from 1,000 to a range of 450 to 700 with more deed-restricted affordable housing. She also wished to prevent vacation rentals, Pacaso-style timeshares, and second homes at SDC. She called on the state to step up and invest in the clean up of the site to make it more financially feasible for possibilities like a climate research center. Camp Via in the hills could also be rehabbed for campers to service people like the former clients of SDC as well as youth and school groups.
However, the supervisors did not vote or pass a resolution and are relying on the planning staff to make the changes. A delay to give more time was not granted and a hotel remains in the mix along with a possible new road through a voter-protected community separator.
The board won’t see the plans again until at least September 2022 after environmental review and public hearings before the county Planning Commission. So far county planners have remained fixed on market-rate housing, commercial development and retail at the site.
The next step will be a public meeting to determine what to study in the environmental review process under the California Environmental Quality Act sometime in February, when the next iteration of the SDC Specific Plan will be released. A Specific Plan is essentially a mini-General Plan to determine land uses specific to a given property or area; in this case SDC.
County planners claimed that the state would not allow any time extension due to a contract signed with the State of California in December 2019 before COVID to complete the SDC Specific Plan and environmental review with three years. However, the county got behind due to the COVID crisis and wildfires and is now rushing to put through a large development plan by the end of 2022.
The 945-acre property is owned by the State of California. It was closed in 2018, the last of the state hospitals to do so. The County of Sonoma is leading the public process to provide a plan and vision for the land before the State sells, leases, exchanges, or otherwise transfers the property, per state legislation. Community visioning for the land has been underway for five years or more, but very few of the concepts for an environmentally sound and small scale reuse of the property were included in the county plans.