It is a common occurrence for a community member to approach me with questions and concern about the future of Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC). I get it entirely — SDC is special.
The bucolic setting and iconic status of SDC is a common thread that runs through generations of Sonomans. Indeed, it seems we all know people who have worked at SDC and/or had family members reside on the campus. Many community members grew up playing softball on the fields, attending Special Olympics events, visiting Junior Farm, and more. For over 100 years, SDC and the residents have been woven in the fabric of our lives.
The SDC has been a part of the life of the Valley since the late 1800s when the land was first purchased and donated to the State as a home for the most behaviorally challenged and medically fragile members in California — the first of a such homes in California. This site has a long and rich history of the presence of Native Americans, Spanish, early settlers, followed by the development of the railroad, land speculators and agriculture – and of course the Beauty Ranch owned by Jack London just next door.
Today, we face a new reality.
When the closure was announced several years ago with a fast timeline, many were stunned and even now, we are still absorbing what it will mean to Sonoma Valley. In the past, the SDC has been the largest employer in the County, and more recently the largest employer in Sonoma Valley. Beyond its role as an employer, the campus is a place of tranquility and beauty and a reminder that it continues as a home for fragile community members.
In the 1980s large sections of the upper reach of the site were annexed into Jack London State Park, excluding the in-holdings of Camp Via and the Orchard. Agriculture Preservation & Open Space District purchased a large conservation easement across the top of the site to connect the Sonoma Mountain Trail along the top of the ridge line, completed only a year ago. Both of these parcels are preserved in perpetuity and open to the public for hiking in an integrated network of trails with Jack London State Park and Sonoma Mountain Regional Park.
Many are unaware that Sonoma County Regional Parks purchased several hundred acres of SDC in stages between Arnold Drive and Highway 12. Additional parcels of land north and south of Sonoma Valley Regional Park expansion are now in the process of developing trails and recreational amenities.
The SDC’s remaining open space provides de facto opportunities for hiking and biking around Camp Via and the reservoirs on the site. Further, the Developmental Center has generously opened the site to the community for the use of the baseball and soccer fields and sometimes hosting community meetings in several of the 146 buildings on the site. However, most of the occupied footprint of the site has been off limits to casual use to respect the privacy and security of the residents and employees on the site. The tranquility and beauty of the site has provided a therapeutic benefit to the SDC residents and employees over the decades.
Most of the undeveloped land on the SDC site on both sides of Arnold Drive was included in the expanded community separators approved by the voters last November. Intensification of use of the land in the community separator is now prohibited under the general plan, but still could be considered for park annexation and small-scale agricultural activities.
This site is an extremely important ecological asset for Sonoma Valley. Riparian corridors along the Sonoma Creek, its tributaries, and the critical protection of the wildlife corridor through the site reinforce the pristine values and functions for wildlife. Additionally, we are now attempting to document and appraise the watershed and carbon sequestration through the “Healthy Lands, Healthy Economies” initiative of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation & Open Space District. These values will make our decisions over the next few years even more critical for the future of our Valley.
There will be a number of opportunities for the community to learn more about the history of the site, transitioning of its residents to the community, ecological connections and benefits and needs of the community that may be considered in the master planning of the site for future reuse.
State Senators McGuire and Dodd, Assemblymember Aguilar-Curry and I will be co-hosting a number of Town Hall Forums over the next year to provide updates important to the community.
The first forum will be held on October 21 from 9 a.m. to noon at Altimira Middle School. The State will provide an update of the transition process, a conversation about enhanced benefit health services for regional center clients at the Santa Rosa Health Center, and an update about the site assessment process. The SDC Coalition will have an opportunity to provide an update on its working groups and participation with the state in engaging the community in visioning for the future. We hope to see you there.