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Sonoma City Council thumbs down on SDC alternatives

The three SDC Alternatives

Alternative A (dubbed the “Conserve and Enhance” alternative) preserves the Sonoma House complex and Main Building and 37 other historic resources, while developing 990 total housing units (240 affordable). It also includes 8 acres of recreational open space and 29 acres of buffered open space.

Alternative B (“Core and Community”) preserves the Sonoma House complex and the Main Building, plus 33 other historic resources, while developing 1,290 housing units (310 affordable). It includes 5.5 acres of recreational open space and 35 acres of buffered open space.

Alternative C (“Renew”) preserves the Sonoma House complex and Main Building and 11 other historic resources, while creating 1,190 housing units (280 affordable). It includes 5 acres of recreational open space and 41 acres of buffered open space.

The Sonoma City Council on Wednesday voiced its disapproval over the three “alternatives” offered by county planners as to the future use of the former Sonoma Developmental Center property south of Glen Ellen.

“(The alternatives) are not acceptable in my mind for the future of that gorgeous property,” said newly seated Councilmember Sandra Lowe, in her second meeting on the dais.

Lowe described the fate of the state-owned 945-acre property at Eldridge as among the most important decisions affecting the Sonoma Valley in a generation. It was an assessment with which her council colleagues agreed.

“This could be the biggest issue in a century,” said Councilmember Kelso Barnett.

The council on Dec. 1 received a brief presentation of the Alternatives Report for the Sonoma Developmental Center Specific Plan by Brian Oh, a planning manager with the County’s planning agency, Permit Sonoma. The council was agendized to consider scheduling a future public workshop to discuss the viability of the three development alternatives presented for SDC, which was shuttered by the state at the end of 2018. Though the County is considering input on the SDC plans from a wide range of stakeholders, the Sonoma City Council has no direct influence over the final decision.

While directing city staff to include a broader discussion of the SDC plans — and the city’s response to the county Board of Supervisors — in the council’s Dec. 15 meeting, members couldn’t hide their disappointment with the three options. At issue foremost was each alternative’s requirement of privatized market-rate housing and a hotel in order to finance the expected $100 million needed to rehabilitate the property’s infrastructure.

All three alternatives – referred to as A, B and C in the report — include a mix of historic preservation, affordable and market-rate housing, a hotel, open space and recreation areas. The plans call for between 990 and 1,290 total housing units, 75% of which would be set at market rate.

Members of the council balked at the high amount of market-rate housing required in each scenario in order for a developer to cover the immediate costs to rehabilitate the site’s infrastructure.

Barnett suggested that if the state put a fraction of its $31 billion budget surplus toward the infrastructure work needed at SDC, the County could plan alternatives that didn’t include so much market-rate housing.

“My issue is not with the consultant team or Permit Sonoma, it is with the state,” Barnett said about his disapproval of the alternatives. “The state has a $30 billion surplus.”

Councilmember Bob Felder echoed similar frustrations with the mandates the state placed on the County of Sonoma’s SDC plans.

“To ask the County to come up with an economically feasible plan is ludicrous when the state has the money to do it,” said Felder. “And yet they sit back and say, ‘get it done’.”

Lowe described her “disappointment” in the use of a hotel in all of the plans as a “monetizing venture.” She said the hospitality industry jobs created won’t provide high enough incomes for the workers to live locally and would only “exacerbate our traffic and housing problems.”

“It’s the wrong thing for that place,” Lowe said. “We can’t turn that over to a boutique hotel — that is not worthy of the memories of those people (who lived and worked at SDC), or worthy of our state.”

Several members of the public spoke in support of the concept of an “Eldridge Trust,” which would secure public and private funds to pay for infrastructure and other development needs at SDC, while mitigating the need for privatization on the property.

Glen Ellen resident Mark Neuhauser called upon the City Council to support the formation of such a trust. “This is public land and I don’t think we should relinquish that,” he said.

Councilmember Barnett also showed interest in a trust, comparing the potential at SDC to what San Francisco accomplished with its Presidio Trust, which helped transform the City’s former military base into a regional recreation and business destination. However, he pointed out, the Presidio Trust benefited from millions of dollars in federal funds secured for the project by San Francisco’s Rep. Nancy Pelosi. “Who is our Nancy Pelosi going to be?” asked Barnett.

Other public commenters simply asked for more time to consider additional alternatives.

“As SDC has come down the pipeline, it sort of feels like a slow-moving wildfire that’s coming our way,” said Glen Ellen resident Alice Horowitz. “And it’s like how is this going to happen? Slow and low and beneficial, or fast and high and way too much?”

Concluded Horowitz: “These alternatives are looking like the fast and high and way too much.”

Time is one thing SDC stakeholders may not have. According to state and county timelines, the Board of Supervisors will consider preferred alternatives in January and finalize those alternatives in February. The publishing of the draft Environmental Impact Report for a plan is due in June.

The City Council’s workshop to consider and respond to the Alternatives Report will take place as part of its regular meeting on Dec. 15.

Email Jason Walsh at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

The three SDC Alternatives

Alternative A (dubbed the “Conserve and Enhance” alternative) preserves the Sonoma House complex and Main Building and 37 other historic resources, while developing 990 total housing units (240 affordable). It also includes 8 acres of recreational open space and 29 acres of buffered open space.

Alternative B (“Core and Community”) preserves the Sonoma House complex and the Main Building, plus 33 other historic resources, while developing 1,290 housing units (310 affordable). It includes 5.5 acres of recreational open space and 35 acres of buffered open space.

Alternative C (“Renew”) preserves the Sonoma House complex and Main Building and 11 other historic resources, while creating 1,190 housing units (280 affordable). It includes 5 acres of recreational open space and 41 acres of buffered open space.

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