Sonoma Developmental Center lands
Teri Shore

Teri Shore

Lands at Risk in the Heart of Sonoma Valley

Greenbelt Alliance is once again speaking up for the protection of open space lands in the heart of Sonoma Valley at the former Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC), also known as Eldridge. The 945-acre property is owned by the State of California. The County of Sonoma is leading the public process to provide a plan and vision for the land before the State sells it to a developer or other entity.

While preservation of the 725 acres of natural lands has been promised by State and County officials, the status of this important stretch of greenbelt remains in limbo. The focus is on pushing through a development plan, called the SDC Specific Plan, for the previously developed 220-acre historic campus that served developmentally disabled people, their caregivers and families, and friends for decades. View the Specific Plan and documents here and sign up for updates here.

At a recent public meeting held by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, Greenbelt Alliance along with a mosaic of groups and individuals raised concerns that the draft plans presented for the historic campus were for far more intense development than anyone previously envisioned. Read public comments from Greenbelt Alliance and others here.

Greenbelt Alliance supports the open space elements of the SDC Specific Plan to date, though we believe that the open space lands don’t need to wait to be added to the adjacent parks. We urged the County and the State to immediately delineate those lands and protect them in perpetuity by transferring them to state and regional parks.

In our 2017 At Risk report, we identified the 945-acres of the Sonoma Developmental Center lands as one of the most at-risk greenbelts in the Bay Area, with a critical wildlife corridor that runs through the heart of the property and Sonoma Valley. Of that 945-acres, 825 acres were designated as protected community separators by the 83 percent of the voters of Sonoma County in 2016. This county policy prevents intensification of development on those lands and needs to be considered in the SDC Specific Plan. So far, the plan doesn’t mention or map those voter-approved protected areas.

While everyone agrees that some affordable housing and low-impact development makes sense, the Specific Plan for SDC developed by the County’s planning staff and consultants propose an entire new community with housing, new roads, retail stores, commercial uses, visitor events, and possibly even a new hotel. It would insert a new town right in the middle of the existing city of Glen Ellen that surrounds SDC. 

The rural lands at SDC are without jobs, schools, transit, or services. Adding those amenities, as well as new roads, new lights for streets, buildings, parking lots as well as providing for water, sewer, parks, police, etc., will generate huge new environmental and economic impacts. It will also generate significant new greenhouse gas emissions from driving, operations, and maintenance. Do we really want or need to urbanize these unique lands in the middle of Sonoma Valley?

It seems that the planners are relying on the standard planning approach used in urban areas, instead of creating a visionary new climate-resilient transformation for a precious landscape that hosts a significant wildlife corridor. Where are the bear crossings for example? What about trails and campgrounds? The solar panels? The organic farm? Such ideas have been suggested over the past five years in various community meetings, but seemingly overlooked in the planning process to date. Read about the community visioning here.

Public Outreach

Moving forward, Greenbelt Alliance and our allies told the supervisors that public outreach needs to be extended and expanded to all sectors of the community and beyond Sonoma Valley to the entire county. The so-called Public Advisory Team is still not open to the public, and the members are not doing any outreach that we can tell.

In fact, that SDC Specific Plan is not just a local planning issue! The lands are owned by the people of the state of California. The future of the heart of Sonoma Valley is important to all who live and visit, but also to people across the Bay Area and the entire state of California. 

It’s important to all of us because the land itself is owned by the people of California as it is State-owned. The property is a well-documented wildlife corridor for bears, mountain lions, and other far-ranging animals that connects the mountain ranges as far east as Snow Mountain to the coast and Pt. Reyes National Seashore. The native trees and plants and pure spring water from Sonoma Mountain offer clean air and water. Not to mention the area acts as a greenbelt buffer to reduce wildfire risk to nearby communities. Such precious natural resources are critical to responding to climate change challenges.

The State recently set a goal of protecting 30 percent of natural lands by 2030 to fight climate change, conserve biodiversity and boost climate resilience. Adding the total 945 acres of SDC lands for conservation will forward that goal and preserve these natural resources forever. 

Direction

Greenbelt Alliance urged the Board of Supervisors to direct the planning staff and consultants to:

  • Immediately arrange for the transfer of open space lands to state and regional parks.
  • Provide a more visionary plan that incorporates the previous five years or more of community visioning.
  • Provide low-profile alternatives focused on providing housing per state legislation.

Next Steps and Actions

As the next step, several planning “alternatives” are being developed by the planning staff and consultants for public review in the coming months. After that, an Environmental Impact Report will be developed and released. The timeline calls for a final plan by the end of 2022

We will continue to be a watchdog over the process in order to achieve the best result for the people and land at the Sonoma Developmental Center.

Photo: Sonoma Developmental Center

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