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Concerns over how to protect major wildlife corridor through Sonoma Developmental Center

Have your say on SDC

The Sonoma Developmental Center will take community input about the alternative plans proposed for the iconic site. The first meeting is Saturday, Nov. 13, from 10 to 11:30 a.m. on Zoom. The second is a Spanish-language workshop on Tuesday, Nov. 16, from 5 to 6:30 p.m., also through Zoom.

The workshops will seek to create dialogue between the community and the planners of the SDC Specific Plan for the alternatives proposed. Links to attend these meetings will appear at sdcspecificplan.com/meetings.

At one time, animals could easily migrate from the coast to the west, to the mountains of the east. But piece by piece, as development took hold in the North Bay, their access grew more limited. Today, one of the few remaining safe passages crosses Sonoma Valley from Sonoma Mountain the the Mayacamas, cutting right through the Sonoma Developmental Center.

As the SDC Site Specific Plan, a group that has spent months discussing the future of the storied Eldridge property, gets ready to present its ideas for the land, officials at Sonoma Land Trust are worried. Worried that this ecologically sensitive swath will be an afterthought. Worried that their recommendations to protect this corridor may come off as “anti-housing.” And worried what will happen if animals can’t safely move through the ecologically sensitive Blue Ridge wildlife corridor, which spans the North Bay.

There’s no choosing between the environment and the redevelopment of the Sonoma Developmental Center — “it has to be both” said Eamon O’Byrne, executive director of the Sonoma Land Trust.

He said the region is one of the most vital to the health of the entire region, not just Sonoma Valley.

“Any ecosystem is a gathering of a lot of elements that have been balanced over time through evolution,” O’Byrne said. “When you eliminate enough of the actors, the system starts to break down.”

If the wildlife corridor is fragmented by the redevelopment of SDC, it could isolate animal populations, create more hazardous fire elements and potentially lead to more outbreaks of animal-to-human diseases, O’Byrne said.

Bradley Dunn, the policy manager for Permit Sonoma which will decide whether to approve SDC plans, said that an environmental review will take place once a design is chosen.

“The environmental review requires us to go through and to determine whether or not... there are impacts to the environment and how to mitigate those impacts,” Dunn said.

But that does not alleviate the concerns of O’Byrne and John McCaull, land acquisition director of Sonoma Land Trust in Sonoma Valley, who believe that the Board of Supervisors should consider the environmental constraints of the land before projects are designed, not after.

Sonoma Land Trust, one of the groups involved in the deliberation on the future plans of SDC, said that Permit Sonoma has not reviewed the environmental impact for any of the proposed designs. It’s effectively putting the cart before the horse.

“Rather than the starting place being: What are our environmental constraints? What are the environmental needs? What are the resource protection needs? We're going to be starting from the other end,” McCaull said, with development first. “It's a fundamental problem.”

Often times, the Sonoma Land Trust’s work concerns restoring properties that have been degraded through human development, McCaull said. But for most of its history, SDC was a hospital that did not have a major human impact on the land. The 750-acres of the property’s wildlife corridor are basically “untouched” and pristine, making them even more valuable, ecologically speaking.

“You could look at the diversity of wildlife species,” McCaul said. “The abundance of wildlife, the amount of water that the property contributes to Sonoma Creek. You could look at the groundwater recharge potential. I could go on and on, but it's just got such high quality resources in there.”

Dunn asserts that the environment is a high priority, and that any of the alternative proposals for the facility will still provide over 700 acres in protected wild land. The project, by law, has to go through an environmental review first before any plans are finalized.

While the ultimate constraints of the project are unknown at the moment, he said that there is potential for the project to meet the urgent needs of Sonoma Valley.

“We think that this has huge potential to really positively impact the Valley and bring desperately needed affordable housing,” Dunn said, “while... preserving some of the state's history.”

Preservation is on the mind of O’Byrne, too.

“You cannot isolate an ecosystem by putting a real or imaginary fence around it and say you've protected this,” O’Byrne said. “Because over time, that ecosystem will collapse.”

Barriers like California highways and the southern border wall are two examples that have cut off native populations of animals from their habitats, he said. The “island” effect of certain populations can lead to more diseases that are transmissible to humans.

One example O’Byrne mentioned was about deer ticks, who are known to carry Lyme disease. Sonoma County has one of the highest instances of Lyme disease in California, he said. And if a population of deer ticks becomes isolated and no longer faces predators, the populations of ticks infected with Lyme disease could boom into a greater risk for the public.

The environment is more interconnected than is obvious to the naked eye. The Sonoma Developmental Center is part of that environment, and its future will echo through the community, for both humans and non-humans in Sonoma Valley alike.

“It's not just about Sonoma Valley,” O’Byrne said. “It has regional, county, state and Western U.S. implications to keep these corridors and connections open so that we can see flow through the system.”

Contact Chase Hunter at chase.hunter@sonomanews.com and follow @Chase_HunterB on Twitter.

Have your say on SDC

The Sonoma Developmental Center will take community input about the alternative plans proposed for the iconic site. The first meeting is Saturday, Nov. 13, from 10 to 11:30 a.m. on Zoom. The second is a Spanish-language workshop on Tuesday, Nov. 16, from 5 to 6:30 p.m., also through Zoom.

The workshops will seek to create dialogue between the community and the planners of the SDC Specific Plan for the alternatives proposed. Links to attend these meetings will appear at sdcspecificplan.com/meetings.

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