Decision time on the future of the Sonoma Developmental Center

Posted on January 15, 2022 by Anna Pier

The process for the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) is a front and center topic for a large number of Valley residents who are engaged socially and environmentally in the future of the 945-acre campus.

The next step in the years-long process is a January 25 meeting when the Board of Supervisors will get its first public look at – and not vote on, but “make comments and suggestions,” according to Supervisor Susan Gorin – the planning department’s new project description, the so-called “fourth alternative.” 

The three draft alternative plans for developing the former state hospital site, unveiled in November by an Oakland consulting firm, met with widespread disappointment. Reacting negatively were a variety of vested organizations, including the North Sonoma Valley Municipal Advisory Council (MAC) and Springs MAC – official panels that make non-binding recommendations to the supervisors. Sonoma Land Trust, and Sonoma Mountain Preservation soundly panned the county’s initial plan that included up to 1,100 units of housing. 25% of housing was designated “affordable” in the alternatives, but many locals regard this publicly-owned land as a unique opportunity to address the Valley’s acute housing crisis. 

At the core of the responses is the request that the Board of Supervisors direct the county planning department, Permit Sonoma, to request an extension of the state’s deadline for submitting an approved Specific Plan. 

The current deadline is December 31, 2022, which is viewed even by the county as an extremely ambitious date for completing the necessary entitlement steps, including Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission, EIR (Environmental Impact Review), CEQA (CA Environmental Quality Act), Board of Zoning Adjustments review and finally, approval by the Board of Supervisors. 

The additional time would allow, critics say, a new plan that synthesizes the concerns about the scope and affordability of the housing units; the preservation and protection of open space,  possible expansion of the wildlife corridor; water and sewage; traffic; and providing other community assets including education. 

But county planners say their hands are virtually tied by the state, which owns the property and wants to sell it off by the end of the year. “The state has been clear that the timeline is what it is,” says Bradley Dunn, the spokesperson for the project. “If we don’t come up with a plan, the state will simply sell the property to the highest bidder.” Dunn added his belief that the state is not willing to continue to “spend millions” on maintaining a property that is not being used. 

The county presented its three plans – all with similar construction footprints, including heavy development of market rate housing and a resort hotel – in November. Lack of public input to the plans has been a common matter of concern. In a letter to the Supervisors, the Springs MAC asserts that “the information provided by local organizations was not included in the plans,” and calls for additional time given the challenges of the pandemic, for “better outreach to Latinx, low income elders, renters, disabled and other disenfranchised populations.” 

There has been widespread criticism of the failure of the county to work with the community, or to incorporate community input that was received, in the draft proposals to date. There is also question as to why the 15-member PAT (Planning Advisory Team), constituted by the supervisors for input, has not had a major role in shaping the project.

Yet, Dunn called for “working with the community” to produce a plan that meets the three requirements laid out by the state: preserve historic buildings; protect open space; and allow a financial model that creates no financial burden on the state. 

Dunn declined to comment if the state would have residual liability for cleaning up/mitigating the contamination which occurred under its ownership of the site. Estimates for this run as high as $100 million. 

The State of California gave Sonoma County $3.5 million to fund the three year planning process. Permit Sonoma did not respond to queries as to how much of that money may remain. 

Supervisor Susan Gorin told the Sun that in early 2022 the state plans to issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) to the development community to negotiate for the sale of the property. No price has been publicly discussed. 

Several organizations have voiced the possibility that the plan need not be market-driven, if community land trusts or other public monies were found to finance the development of what is essentially publicly-owned property. 

Permit Sonoma must comply with the Brown Act to make public its new draft plan prior to the January 25 meeting. The new iteration is expected to incorporate some of the suggestions received by Permit Sonoma through letters, comments and even its own online survey in December. Dunn said the planning department was hoping to have additional  input from “south” of Eldridge. 

The Board can move on Permit Sonoma’s new plan, revert to one of the three initial proposals, or even request changes – though the looming deadlines make that highly unlikely. 

Supervisor Gorin hopes the new proposal will “include policy options so the Board can embrace a model of employment to diversify the economy of Sonoma Valley, a diverse mix of housing styles and clustered patterns  and services appropriate to the scale and need of the residents and employees on the campus, along with opportunities for education, recreation, protection of open space and riparian corridors, and history museum.” 


2 thoughts on “Decision time on the future of the Sonoma Developmental Center

  1. There is a great need for more housing in Sonoma Valley. Sorry, but 1,000 housing units is nearly not enough. Homes in Glen Ellen cost millions — where should the working class live? Where should the young just starting out with families go? Glen Ellen and North Sonoma Valley need to move beyond NIMBYism and be more accepting, embracing, and empathetic of needs of those who may not be like them. Housing on land that already has development on it is also more environmentally-friendly than paving land elsewhere. We don’t need more sprawl and low-density development — this is the perfect place to create a new community.

    1. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but the county’s 4 plans call for sprawl at SDC and the housing will still cost millions. A new community should be more compact, with true affordable housing. I would ask JohnRM to read the documentation prepared by the North Sonoma Valley MAC and the Sonoma Land Trust to see how housing could be concentrated in a smaller area and be all deed restricted affordable, as opposed to the market rate sprawl the county is planning. It is very easy to throw the term NIMBY around, but in this case our choice is creating Fremont or Walnut Creek in Sonoma Valley or thinking outside the box and creating better plan.

Comments are closed.

Sonoma Sun | Sonoma, CA