Driving south through Glen Ellen, you cross over a historic trestle bridge, and you think you’ve entered the land that time forgot. And you may be right. You enter a sprawling campus of green grass, towering oaks and quaint cottage-style buildings. You are driving through the Sonoma Developmental Center – the oldest developmental center in California.
Sonoma Valley knows how special this center is. For over 100 years it served as home to a vulnerable population of developmentally challenged residents. And was the largest employer, with generations of families employed at the center until the residents were placed in the community, and staff transferred to other jobs or choosing retirement.
The SDC is set to be transferred to the management of the state Department of General Services; a handful of maintenance staff, security and firefighters will remain on the campus to safeguard its function during warm closure. With its intact watershed and gorgeous landscapes bookending a campus of aging buildings and infrastructure, this campus presents enormous opportunities and challenges for the Valley and the County.
Almost a decade ago, a group of organizations came together to discuss the future of this site. We need to thank Sonoma Mountain Preservation, Sonoma Ecology Center and Sonoma Land Trust for starting a broad-based coalition of organizations, individuals and County departments and agencies, bringing us to this point of decision.
And thank you to our state elected delegation of Senators McGuire and Dodd and Assemblymembers Aguiar-Curry, Wood and Levine for listening to the community and agreeing that this campus is unique, and deserves a community-driven process to help plan the future of the SDC campus and undeveloped land, rather than moving it into a surplus sale immediately.
I have had the privilege of chairing the SDC Coalition over the past six years, working determinedly and collaboratively to this historic day to preserve the land and keep it open for public access and annexation into Jack London State Park and Sonoma Valley Regional Park — an incredible opportunity for all. The County’s Ag + Open Space agency is coordinating the effort.
However, the aging campus, with its iconic brick building at the head of the oval, presents multiple challenges in transitioning for the future. Some of the buildings are somewhat reusable, but all will prove to be expensive to mitigate for lead and asbestos and retrofit to modern standards; and water, sewer, heating/cooling, and electrical systems all need to be replaced.
The largest intact parcel of land in Sonoma Valley offers opportunities for the Valley and the County. It could be the site of desperately needed housing for special needs citizens, homeless community members and the workforce; our Sonoma Valley employers struggle to recruit and hire teachers, health professionals and workers for agriculture, tourism and related industries that support our County’s economy. The 2017 firestorms sweeping through the Valley displaced many of those families.
We also need to think creatively about employment and services for the future. A museum to document the history of the center, housing/studios for artists (over 70 artists lost their homes and studios in the fires), SRJC educational and vocational classes, nonprofit hub, research and conference facilities, a maker-space, business incubators… our minds spin at the possibilities. The site appears large on paper, but the footprint of the campus is limited to less than 200 acres. There are constraints on traffic and water availability, so the impact analysis will be critical in determining what can be accommodated on the site and fit into the fabric of the Valley.
The next milestone for the SDC is a Visioning Workshop, when the community can come together for a visioning process to set the stage for the formal community engagement and land use planning process in the fall. It has been a long six years with hiccups along the way, but I am grateful to so many in the community, County and State to reach this opportunity. Hope to see you there.
SDC VISIONING WORKSHOP
Hanna Boys Center
June 15 – 9:00-12:00 am