New Health Center site approved

The Sonoma Valley Community Health Center took a giant step forward with its plans to relocate to a larger site in preparation for the influx of new patients expected when the Affordable Care Act goes into effect next year. On Thursday, the health center received robust support from the Sonoma Planning Commission for its proposed use permit and parking exception to make a new home at 19270 Sonoma Highway.

“It’s a no brainer,” said Commissioner Gary Edwards. “I think it’s a terrific idea.”

Formerly the site of Sonoma Rentals, the nearly 19,000-square-foot building would more than double the space the health center currently occupies at its location on West Napa Street. The current site was piecemealed together over the last 21 years as office space became available, and has never been a cohesive design for efficient operations at the health center. While in 2011 the center provided around 27,000 patient appointments, officials at the center expect that number to rise about 30 percent, to more than 47,000 visits, when additional Valley residents will be eligible for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act beginning in 2014. At the new location, not only would the health center be able to treat more patients, it will be able to expand the medical services it can offer. In addition to primary care, pediatrics, immunization, urgent care, women’s health and neonatal care, the center plans to expand its behavioral health offerings and include dental health – all under the same roof – making it more convenient for patients.

“That new location will be a little closer to where most of our population currently lives,” said Cheryl Johnson, chief executive officer at the center, who explained most of their patients reside in Boyes Hot Springs.

The use permit sought to create a medical facility in the former retail space, which is consistent with the commercial zoning of the property. When discussing possible impacts on traffic, most commissioners focused on the decreased traffic on West Napa Street as a plus of the plan to relocate.

“That’s a very large mitigating factor for me,” said Commissioner Mathew Tippell of any traffic concerns he might have regarding the new site.

Then came the discussion of parking. While the Highway 12 site has ample parking – 75 spaces in total – it is still 18 parking spots shy of the 93 spots required under the city’s parking equation, which calls for one parking spot for every 300-square-feet of the building. Johnson was quick to point out that 75 spots is significantly more than the dozen or so parking spots the health center has now; and with a new location along the bus route, its likely more patients will rely on mass transit instead of cars. City staff agreed.

“The amount of parking would be sufficient when compared to the parking available at the current site on West Napa Street,” said Rob Gjestland, a senior planner with the city, who reviewed the health center’s proposal and recommended its approval. “Covered bicycle parking will also be offered on site.”

While in its initial plan, the health center had called for eight covered bicycle parking spots in its design, the planning commission asked for 18 spots in order to reach the 93 parking spots required by the city between bicycle and car parking.

“And I’m only asking for that because I know it will be easy to incorporate in the design,” Edwards said.

Half-a-dozen residents – all health center employees or board members – spoke in favor of the project, citing how much it would improve health services to have ample space to conduct operations.

“The property really seems ideal for us,” said Boardmember Tom Anderson.

The Planning Commission agreed by unanimously supporting the proposed use permit and parking exception.

The next hurdle for the Sonoma Valley Community Health Center will be financial. While Johnson confirmed they are under contract to purchase the new site on Highway 12, funding is not yet in place to complete the project. In May, Johnson estimate the total project costs at about $10 million, which includes an extensive remodel of the building to meet the health center’s unique needs.

While the health center has already received a $5 million grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration, the remaining $5 million will have to be raised by the center. Johnson has previously said she’s considering a capital campaign to bridge the gap.