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Commentary: The value of local knowledge at SDC

Kim Stafford, in his book “Having Everything Right,” writes about a notation on nautical charts, seen near treacherous shorelines: “Local knowledge advised.” In recent years, biologists have endorsed a similar idea, discovering that land cared for in traditional ways by Indigenous people is healthier and more biodiverse than parks fully “protected” from humans. The concept, known as “Traditional Ecological Knowledge,” is nothing less than local knowledge honed over generations. This form of knowledge is now recognized as having both measurable and aesthetic value. Often ignored or dismissed in the past, there is much we can learn from it. In fact, Indigenous people’s intimate relationships with the land and their practices on it, are essential to maintaining a healthy and resilient landscape.

While most Glen Ellen citizens can’t claim such a long heritage, many of us have been here for decades. Some have roots going back generations. Our individual lived experience here totals many thousands of years. I like to think of any community’s connection with the land as a marriage. If it’s a good one, then the relationship is respectful, supportive, loving and yes, occasionally unpleasant. The Glen Ellen community possesses something unusual in today’s world: a rich trove of local knowledge. Better than anyone, we understand the potentials and limitations of the local landscape.

Glen Ellen is a gift. It’s a place where humans and wildlife still exist in a rough balance. Where else can you stand on a bridge in the middle of a town, hear the comforting sound of a flowing creek and watch otters and salmon swimming below while hawks and turkey vultures circle above? In such moments, there’s a sense of “having everything right.” If you’ve heard of the “wildlife corridor,” here it’s more than a concept drawn on a map; it’s part of our daily experience. If this makes you scoff, I invite you to spend at little time here. See if you can understand Glen Ellen’s bumper stickers that proclaim, “Love Our Town, Slow Down.”

All this might sound overly romantic, but there’s another side to Glen Ellen’s “local knowledge.” Four years ago, on the night after our Village Fair, the Nunns fire roared through town. In the space of a few hours, we went from the highlight of the year to devastating loss. One in 10 of our homes burned, likely the highest proportion of any local community. In the aftermath, it became crystal clear how much we need and depend on each other. We had no choice but to learn and practice resilience.

We came to the brink of losing our whole town. That possibility has only been reinforced since, as we’ve witnessed the loss of other small towns to fire and experienced multiple evacuations ourselves. We know what it means to be homeless refugees. What it means — even for those who rebuilt — to be “housing insecure.” In a rapidly changing world, we’re very aware of how close we live to the edge. Even so we count ourselves lucky, are grateful to call Glen Ellen home. We hold a certain reverence for this place that includes both its human and its wild citizens. With that recognition comes a deep sense of responsibility.

With the specific plan process for Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) underway, Glen Ellen is facing our second existential crisis in less than five years. It’s a tumultuous time and the dust is not going to settle soon. So much is unknown, in motion, or both. It’s disturbing how the promised community-driven process has veered off course. But we’re doing our best to hang in there and nudge it back on track.

What does Glen Ellen want? The North Sonoma Valley Municipal Advisory Council, which serves as the community’s voice within county government, articulated a positive vision in a letter to Permit Sonoma. The letter, based on many years of meetings and public comments, garnered wide support, from the Sonoma City Council, the Sonoma Valley Citizen’s Advisory Commission, Sonoma Land Trust, Sonoma Mountain Preservation, Glen Ellen Historical Society, and other organizations. A petition in favor of it has been signed by over 1,600 people from all over the Valley and the county.

In a nutshell, our vision for SDC includes: open space, a high percentage of permanently affordable housing at a density compatible with our rural area, historic preservation, adaptive reuse of existing buildings, job creation, climate resilience and fire safety. Glen Ellen wants to offer more than a bunch of boxes called “housing.” We’re absolutely willing to share this place we love and look forward to welcoming new neighbors—of all ethnicities, ages, abilities, and economic status—into a community they can truly call “home.”

Realizing such a complicated vision will take time. Like remodeling a house, it’s impossible to plan everything at the start and the process will be somewhat unpredictable. But if SDC’s redevelopment can happen in stages, we can make the most of unseen possibilities as well as address still unknown constraints. It’s unrealistic to expect a private developer to take the time to do it right within the usual “time is money” framework. What would work is a creative governance structure, like a trust, which would buy time by tapping into creative financing sources and approaches. I believe an Eldridge Trust offers the best option for achieving our community vision at SDC, which is in line with the goals initially expressed by the State and the County. A group of committed citizens has already begun working on it.

Given climate change, the years ahead are more uncertain than ever. SDC’s future promises to be a treacherous voyage, with unimagined hazards as well as opportunities. Building a healthier and more resilient planet will mean developing a whole different human relationship with the world. It will require “local knowledge” at SDC and elsewhere.

Glen Ellen has something unique and essential to offer the SDC redevelopment process. Our local knowledge represents an unrecognized form of wealth. Even as we claim this asset as our own, we are also willing to share it freely. We ask only that you include us at the table, listen to us respectfully, and take our perspective seriously. We will gladly serve to pilot SDC past hidden dangers that others can’t yet see. As Kim Stafford writes, “The alternative to local knowledge is shipwreck.” Ignore us if you choose. Or work with us and I believe SDC’s future can exceed all our visions.

Arthur Dawson is a longtime Glen Ellen resident at chair of the North Sonoma Valley Municipal Advisory Council.

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