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Sonoma Developmental Center closes most campus roads to cars; reservoirs to hikers

SDC Community Planning Advisory Team

Yesenia Lemus

Marianne Mazzucco Thompson

Peter Ziblatt

Kelso Barnett

Mollyanne Meyn

Bob Holloway

Richard Dale

Nicholas Dalton

John McCaull

Vicki Ann Hill

Peter O'Hara

Robert Upton

Victor Gonzalez

Molly McClean

Nicholas Peter Brown

More than a dozen new gates will restrict vehicle access onto the grounds of the former Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) in the coming weeks. SDC spokesperson JJ Fernandez also stressed that, despite community perception to the contrary, both reservoirs on the property – Suttonfield Lake and Fern Lake – are closed to hiking as well as to fishing and swimming, and that "No Trespassing" signs there are not new.

While specific non-prohibited areas within the state property continue to be accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists, the California Department of Developmental Services' Office of Protective Services (OPS) said in a letter sent to the Index-Tribune on Jan. 9 that it seeks to restrict vehicle traffic on campus. The Department of Developmental Services (DDS) has been closing parts of the Eldridge campus in stages over the past 12 months in an attempt to reduce vandalism. The Sonoma Developmental Center ceased operations on Dec. 31 of 2018.

Most SDC side roads will be cordoned off using new pole gates. Vehicles entering closed areas will be considered trespassing, according to Julian Irigoyen, the state's chief of the Office of Protective Services.

Vehicles will be prohibited from accessing peripheral areas along Holt, Wilson, Harney and Railroad roads. Vehicles entering these closed areas will be considered to be trespassing.

The Jan. 9 letter also stated that the public is prohibited from accessing both reservoirs (for hiking, fishing or swimming), areas affected by the recent fires (including the farm area and Sunrise Industries) and all vacant buildings and parking lots.

Alice Horowitz of the organization Eldridge for All also received the Jan. 9 letter and said that the language about hiking on the reservoirs being prohibited was news to her – and concerning.

'If they are restricting hiking, that seems extreme,' she said. She said reached out to SDC officials for clarification but had not heard back. She said the subject of SDC access would be on the agenda of the February meeting of the Glen Ellen Forum, a community group that meets monthly to discuss issues affecting Glen Ellen, which is adjacent to Eldridge.

'As someone who hikes SDC regularly, I don't mind having to walk a little farther if some of the roads are closed because it will make the campus safer,' she said. 'But if we really can't walk the reservoirs, the community will likely push back.'

Tom Deely is both Eldridge Fire Chief and a part-time captain with the Sonoma Valley Fire & Rescue Authority, which was recently awarded a contract to help protect the SDC property. He was at the Eldridge Fire Station parking lot on Monday and said he was unaware that hiking around the reservoirs is now prohibited.

'So long as people park legally and stay on the trails and don't walk down through the east side of the property, and avoid the burn areas, hiking there is still OK so far as I know,' Deely said.

He pointed out to the Index-Tribune one of several gates sites that were in the process of being installed, including one gate just beyond the fire station.

He said he wasn't surprised that the state was concerned about trespassing, noting that in recently months a vehicle had been stolen from the property, there had been vandalism to the old 'Little Farm' site and some youth had been doing wheelies in one of the intersections.

Meg Beeler of Sonoma Mountain Preservation said that her organization just began leading monthly 'experiential hikes' on the SDC property.

'We'll be able to proceed with the walks,' she said. 'We just got permission.'

Ordered shuttered in 2015 by then-Gov. Jerry Brown, SDC closed officially at the end of 2018, with the future of the 863-acre estate in limbo. The state agreed to pay for maintenance of the property and dedicated $3.5 million toward the county's planning work. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors authorized the development of an SDC 'specific plan,' which will be produced over a three-year span in order to map out a long term vision for the property. Thirteen community members were named to SDC Community Planning Advisory Team in late 2019.

SDC operated from 1891 to 2018 serving people with developmental disabilities on its campus of more than 100 buildings.

Email Lorna at lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com.

[This article has been edited to reflect an additional job title for Tom Deely.]

SDC Community Planning Advisory Team

Yesenia Lemus

Marianne Mazzucco Thompson

Peter Ziblatt

Kelso Barnett

Mollyanne Meyn

Bob Holloway

Richard Dale

Nicholas Dalton

John McCaull

Vicki Ann Hill

Peter O'Hara

Robert Upton

Victor Gonzalez

Molly McClean

Nicholas Peter Brown

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