Sonoma County asks Sonoma Developmental Center builders for clarity on proposed project

The topics marked for additional explanation include bicycle access, sewage disposal, riparian corridors, drainage, parking and a wide range of other subjects.|

Permit Sonoma, the county’s planning and permitting agency, has provided a formal response to the development team selected to build out the Sonoma Developmental Center campus in Glen Ellen, asking for a multitude of clarifications and additional information in a 25-page “completeness review letter.”

“With a project of this magnitude, it’s not uncommon to see a review with this much substance,” Tennis Wick, the Permit Sonoma director, told The Press Democrat in a Zoom interview that also included project planner Wil Lyons and planning manager Ross Markey.

“We’re working from something called a specific plan, but in terms of how two people see a policy document as long as this is, there can be some differences. We feel there are some significant ones that need to be addressed.”

Permit Sonoma is seeking a wide range of updates from Eldridge Renewal, the corporation formed by Napa-based developer Keith Rogal and the Grupe Company, who were chosen by the California Department of General Services to handle the long-anticipated redevelopment of SDC, a former state institution for the developmentally disabled that operated from 1891 through 2018.

Sacramento is allowing Sonoma County to help guide the site development, a rare opportunity for local government as the state sells off one of its properties.

The topics marked for additional explanation in the county request include bicycle access, sewage disposal, riparian corridors, drainage, parking and a wide range of other subjects. The completeness review letter is brimming with phrases like “please describe…,” “please elaborate …” and “please calculate….”

But Rogal, in a brief email to The Press Democrat, agreed that the volume of requests is “not at all surprising” for a project of this magnitude. His tone was upbeat.

“We were pleased to receive a comment letter with the substantial level of detail the county provided, and we view this as a constructive step forward in the planning and approval process,” Rogal wrote.

Eldridge Renewal submitted its proposal Feb. 16. The county had 30 days to ask for clarifications, and Permit Sonoma hit that deadline, with Lyons sending the completeness review on March 15. Rogal’s team now has 90 days to respond. If and when they do, the county has another 60 days to make sure the updated proposal complies with regulations. If it doesn’t, Permit Sonoma will return the plan to the developers for additional work.

The completeness review comprises dozens of individual requests, but the Permit Sonoma team identified a handful of particular importance.

One of them is what the planning agency views as Eldridge Renewal’s overreliance on detached homes with private yards.

“That’s not the aim of the specific plan,” Lyons said of the county blueprint meant to guide the site’s transformation. “There’s a lot of opportunity in that plan for smaller apartment buildings, duplexes, triplexes, spaces of that nature. We would like to see more of that.”

County officials believe smaller, more affordable living spaces are the key to serving the “missing middle” of the local housing sector — the working families and individuals who don’t qualify for subsidized housing but can’t otherwise afford to buy a home.

The specific plan for SDC, passed by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in December 2022, identifies missing middle households as making between 121% and 160% of the county’s median income.

“Missing middle housing should make up 50% of the total market rate housing at the site,” the SDC specific plan reads. “These homes will be accessible for Sonoma County’s middle income workforce, such as teachers and firefighters, to help keep these professionals from being priced out of Sonoma Valley.”

Eldridge Renewal’s proposal calls for 342 detached homes, 56 duplexes, 84 triplexes, 189 townhomes, 174 apartments, 74 mixed-use apartments, 6 cohousing units and 5 independent living residences for people with developmental disabilities.

The Permit Sonoma planners also are convinced that Eldridge Renewal’s plan, while including several parks and garden areas, fails to provide “connectivity” between the 180-acre core campus and the surrounding open space — including 650 acres being deeded to California State Parks.

“We feel the proposal is highly compartmentalized,” Lyons said. “We want to have a full community, where people can enjoy and recreate. And we believe that will ultimately make the development a more compatible neighbor.”

Another point of disagreement is historic preservation. SDC’s storied campus has immense historical significance, with some buildings that date back to the early 20th century. A lot of the older structures, including the iconic brick administration building that faces visitors who drive onto the central traffic oval, are in poor shape and will require a substantial investment to refurbish and repurpose to modern uses.

County officials are convinced the effort would be worth it. And they want to see more diversity in the structures targeted for preservation.

“SDC, with its 100-year history and with buildings all built at different points in time, there’s a unique microcosm of architecture there,” said Lyons, who studied architecture in college. “The developer mostly preserved brick and industrial buildings (in the proposal). They include none of the International Style buildings or traditional California Craftsman houses and cottages.”

Finally, the Permit Sonoma project leaders reiterated a point they made when Eldridge Renewal introduced its proposal. They think the hotel drawn up by Rogal and Grupe is earmarked for the wrong place.

Eldridge Renewal’s site map has the hotel in the northwest corner of the campus. Permit Sonoma contends that’s too close to the vital wildlife corridor that links the coast and Sonoma Mountain to the west with Sonoma Valley Regional Park, the Mayacamas Mountains and points east.

Scientists and conservationists have identified an important wildlife corridor running through Sonoma Valley and the Sonoma Developmental Center between the Mayacamas Mountains and Sonoma Mountain. (Dennis Bolt, For The Press Democrat)
Scientists and conservationists have identified an important wildlife corridor running through Sonoma Valley and the Sonoma Developmental Center between the Mayacamas Mountains and Sonoma Mountain. (Dennis Bolt, For The Press Democrat)

Rogal promised to hit his 90-day deadline and to offer “clear and detailed responses on all the topics raised.”

“Our team is closely analyzing and evaluating the various requests and suggestions presented in the letter, so we will be able to provide thoughtful, well-considered replies,” he wrote. “At this point, we’re in the early stage of review and study, so we’re not able to opine on specific topics just now.”

As Permit Sonoma was preparing its completeness review, Deputy County Counsel Sita Kuteira was asking the California Department of Housing & Community Development for technical assistance on a legal matter pertaining to SDC redevelopment.

The county has accepted Eldridge Renewal’s right to bump the maximum number of housing units from 620, the figure originally approved by the county Board of Supervisors, to 930, based on application of a density bonus. But county officials believe a requirement that 20% of units be deed-restricted and affordable should apply to all 930 dwellings. Rogal argued that only the original 620 units should be subject to the 20% rule.

Kuteira called Rogal’s calculus “unsupported by the canons of statutory construction,” and suggested to the state housing agency that the developer had applied a “builder’s remedy” — a state-sanctioned fast-track option for qualifying projects — to get there.

“The most proper interpretation of the statute requires 20% of all units proposed on the project site, which is 930, to be affordable to lower income households to qualify for protections under the builder’s remedy,” she wrote.

That’s another matter to be settled over the next several months. Wick, the Permit Sonoma director, said public comment will be welcomed through the duration of the process.

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or On X (Twitter) @Skinny_Post.

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