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Affordable housing, jobs urged for Sonoma Developmental Center property

As Sonoma County officials ponder future uses for the Sonoma Developmental Center property, a coalition of nonprofits and other organizations is urging them to create a sustainable community with affordable housing and jobs on the state-owned site in Eldridge.

Sustainable Sonoma, a coalition of nonprofit, business and education leaders seeking to form a common agenda for the Sonoma Valley, called on county leaders to create a plan that envisions the needs of the community in 50 years and beyond.

“Sonoma Valley now works well for certain segments of our community,” said Caitlin Cornwall, the organization’s project director and senior project manager at Sonoma Ecology Center. The future of the Sonoma Developmental Center property needs to consider the “young people of today,” she said.

County planners are tasked with creating three concepts to guide redevelopment of the historic campus, which opened in 1891 and cared for people with developmental disabilities until its closure in 2018. The 945-acre state-owned property includes the 180-acre developed campus and some 700 adjacent acres that reach into Sonoma Valley Regional Park and Jack London State Historic Park.

At a virtual meeting last month to solicit public input, Sustainable Sonoma and other members of the public shared their opinions of what they would like considered as the process moves forward, priorities that ranged from traffic congestion to preserving the historical importance of the buildings and property.

Susan Gorin, 1st District supervisor whose district includes Eldridge and SDC, said more community workshops are coming and more opportunities will be available to include youth and all stakeholders. Among these are Native American communities, which are exploring the potential of putting a museum on the site that would document Native American history.

Chris Coursey, 3rd District supervisor, said the SDC property is a “world-class site” that “deserves a world-class plan.”

Affordable housing is at the forefront of Sustainable Sonoma’s focus, in that it wraps in community service, quality of life, transportation, jobs and more. It is calling for a diversity of home prices and styles that are affordable to people who cannot afford Sonoma Valley market prices, whether to rent or to own.

“Eldridge is big enough to contain many types of land uses,” Cornwall said.

One speaker at the Jan. 26 meeting pleaded with planners to keep the density of housing “low,” citing his experience evacuating due to fires and finding himself on a clogged Arnold Drive, the main artery for transit that runs through SDC.

Housing should be reserved for local “schoolteachers, emergency responders, nurses or other critical community support workers,” Sustainable Sonoma said. Support for those would-be residents’ services should be placed on the site to reduce commuting and driving. Necessary services would include child care, elder care, transit, a fitness facility, play fields, a health clinic, grocery store and coffee shop.

Its letter to decision makers asked for consideration of “interim use and adaptive re-use of campus buildings” that might be used for housing to “help with the extreme housing crisis facing Sonoma Valley.”

The site already has its own water and energy services, Sustainable Sonoma said. Some of the land should be set aside for sustainably produced food, the group said.

Steve Akre, fire chief of Sonoma Valley Fire District, urged the county to maintain on-site fire services that have been in place at SDC since 1924, saying surrounding fire departments cannot meet the demand of the property.

Employment is another component of Sustainable Sonoma’s priorities, and one that Gorin emphasized, too.

“What also is needed are jobs, well-paying jobs,” Gorin said. It is what SDC provided “a while ago,” she said, when it was one of the largest employers in the Sonoma Valley.

“We need education. We need employment. We need services. We need housing. And the journey will be absolutely fascinating to hear from the community, work with the land use planning team to develop the three alternatives … so that we have some really good choices ahead of us,” Gorin said.

Cornwall said the site should be developed as a safe place that can accommodate neighbors during evacuations. There are large areas of open space or pavement where people could gather, Cornwall said. This would alleviate some concerns about traffic congestion in the surrounding area during a fire or other emergency.

“It’s a way for Eldridge to serve the surrounding neighborhoods,” she said.

Sustainable Sonoma’s vision includes “diversifying beyond wine, hospitality and food,” the economic engine of Sonoma Valley, and creating “in-demand jobs of the future such as health care, renewable energy, climate response, wildland management and the building trades.” The people who hold those new jobs would ideally live in the new development, which would also cut down on commutes, Cornwall said.

Some speakers at the meeting said Eldridge should not be viewed in an isolated capacity.

“Whatever happens there (it) needs to be part of Glen Ellen,” said Sharon Church, a Glen Ellen resident. Eldridge is bordered to the north and south by Glen Ellen, creating an island that Church and others are concerned will interfere with a wider vision.

Members of the Glen Ellen Historical Society, which is working to get the SDC on the National Register of Historic Places, also asked to be included in the planning process.

Alternatives for the site will be shared in public workshops in late spring and early summer. For more details, visit sdcspecificplan.com.

Contact Anne at anne.ernst@sonomanews.com.

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