County, state explore future use for SDC

As stakeholders from the Sonoma Valley to Sacramento ponder the future of the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC), a trio of concerns reverberate around the tranquil campus, situated on some 1,000 acres astride Arnold Drive outside Glen Ellen.

Put simply, the three concerns are patients, employees and property.

On Christmas Day, the population had declined to 463, down 53 residents from a year earlier. In 1994, the population was close to 1,200.

Some 200 of the remaining residents are defined as “medical” clients, meaning they have significant to severe medical conditions requiring specialized treatment and care. Another significant percentage are classified as “behavioral” residents, with moderate to severe emotional behavior also requiring specialized treatment.

It currently costs the state close to $400,000 a year to house and care for each SDC resident, an expense no one believes is sustainable.

Following the recommendations of a state task force on the future of residential centers, a significant percentage of SDC residents – if not all of them – will be transitioned out of the facility into smaller, less expensive group homes situated in local communities.

But how many SDC residents can be safely and humanely moved, and where they can be moved to, are questions no one has yet answered.

Serving that declining resident population is a work force of an estimated 1,200 employees, including medical staff, direct care givers, support staff, facilities staff, police and fire personnel, along with specialty technicians, some of whom have pioneered the development of adaptive equipment, including everything from special wheelchairs to custom-made shoes. Some of those services are thought to be unique to SDC and would be hard to replicate, facility advocates say, in the outside world.

And SDC is currently the largest employer in the Sonoma Valley, with a payroll that will be difficult, if not impossible, to replace.

The property itself is a real estate gem, a potential bonanza for a well-financed investor were the land ever to be placed on the open market. It stretches from Highway 12, up the west side of the Valley and spreads up the slope of Sonoma Mountain to the very crest. Some 600 acres of SDC have already been transferred to California State Parks ownership and merged with the adjacent Jack London State Historic Park. The remaining property contains two substantial reservoirs, miles of scenic hiking trails, the site of a summer camp and a large ropes course.

The Task Force’s final report did not recommend declaring SDC, and other developmental center lands, surplus and putting them on the market. Rather, the Task Force concluded that “unused (current and prospective) state DC land should be leveraged to benefit consumers rather than being declared surplus ... the property should be considered for future State-operated facilities and to develop community services, including the Health Resource Center and mixed use communities similar to Harbor Village in Costa Mesa.”

The Task Force added that, “... state land should be retained and the State should enter into public/private partnerships to provide community integrated services, where appropriate ...”

What those integrated services would be and how the public/private partnerships should be created was not directly addressed.

One potential partnership, according to 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin, could be a Sonoma Valley satellite campus for Santa Rosa Junior College, about which some preliminary conversations have already occurred.

Meanwhile, a group of local stakeholders, including the Sonoma Ecology Center, the Sonoma Land Trust, the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District and Sonoma County Regional Parks, have been meeting to discuss options for acquiring access to or ownership of some of the SDC undeveloped property.

Gorin has been deeply involved in the deliberations of the group and reported last week that bringing some of the SDC land under county control, “is very much in the community interest, and regional parks is very interested in looking at land between Arnold Drive and Highway 12. It’s an incredible opportunity.”

That land sits adjacent to Sonoma Valley Regional Park and contains the SDC reservoir and farm while bordering significant sections of Sonoma Creek. It also constitutes part of a critical wildlife corridor stretching from the Mayacama Mountains on the east side of the Valley up to Sonoma Mountain.

Gorin said she has also been involved in conversations with a representative of California State Parks to explore the possibility of merging more of SDC’s upland property with the adjacent section of Jack London State Historic Park.

“Already,” she said, “people hike trails between the two properties. They’ve got Camp Via up there, the ropes course, lots of opportunities to work with scouting and community groups. I want to help jump-start that conversation.”

More complicated, said Gorin, will be the ultimate disposition of the main campus where residence and caretaking occurs.

“There may be a possibility that we can service some of the existing population and a broader client base through partnership with the North Bay Regional Center,” she said. “They have such specialized services there (at SDC) – the wheelchair service, the special shoes they make. Maybe you could do a clinic on-site. Dental service for this population requires specialized treatment, skills and equipment. The same goes for behavioral patients.”

One possibility, Gorin indicated, might be providing continuing services using a small group home model, at the SDC site.

She added that some segments of the resident population have very specific living needs. “Severe autism cases need sound isolation,” she said. “You have to look at the specific needs of the entire resident population.”

Gorin said the next step in planning SDC’s future isn’t entirely clear. “I think the end of this will be a long time coming. The state would like to move very fast, but I’m hoping that would not be the case with this site.”

She said funds are being sought to pay for a planning grant, and that when there is enough information in hand there will be opportunities for public comment and suggestions for how to make best use of the property.

“We do have the power of community to stymie and confront the state,” she insisted. “I plan to make this the top legislative priority for the 1st District, possibly for the county.”