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Sonoma Developmental Center quietly closes its doors

The Sonoma Developmental Center – the oldest facility in California established specifically for serving the needs of individuals with developmental disabilities - officially closed its doors today after 127 years.

The Developmental Center – known for generations simply as SDC – was ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2015 to begin a three-year closure process, with an official shuttering date of Dec. 31, 2018. SDC had at its peak been home to more than 3,000 residents; its final clients left the Eldridge campus in mid-December, according to officials at the state Department of Developmental Services.

First known as the California Home for the Care and Training of Feeble Minded Children, the center opened at its current location in Eldridge on Nov. 24, 1891, though it had existed at previous locations in Vallejo and Santa Clara since 1884.

The center was also known as Sonoma State Home and Sonoma State Hospital before being renamed Sonoma Developmental Center in 1986.

Sixty years ago, SDC was a vibrant campus operating at its maximum capacity with 3,200 residents, many of them children, with a waiting list of more than 1,000. SDC’s staff at one point numbered 1,300; until about a year ago the facility was still the largest employer in the Valley.

The Sonoma Developmental Center has slowly downsized over the years, as models of care for the developmentally disabled grew smaller and more centrally located to community residential neighborhoods. SDC clients have been relocating steadily since 2015, when the state announced its three-year timeline to shutter the facility as part of its move toward operating a limited number of smaller safety net and crisis residential services.

Today, some activity is still visible on the campus. Northern STAR, a small unit contracted to provide short-term crisis stabilization for a handful of clients with developmental disabilities, still serves five residents on the campus. A representative of Northern STAR, reached by phone on Monday, said that they will serve their maximum cap of five clients through March 2019, then transition to its operating services in Vacaville.

As of today, the SDC property has entered a “warm shutdown” period where budgeted money will be used to maintain the property while its facilities are vacant. This maintains not only lights and electricity and fire services, but cameras, security, and fences to prevent vandalism.

The warm shutdown also provides time for legislators and the Valley community to decide on the next stage for the campus buildings and the 860-acre property. The DDS will continue to be the landlord until June 30, when the oversight and disposition of the property will switch to the state’s Department of General Services (DGS).

At stake are the buildings and infrastructure, most of which is in need of upgrades. According to a site report released this fall by the state Department of General Services, just upgrading the heating, cooling, electrical and storm drainage systems to current standards would cost nearly $115 million.

The buildings also still need to be assessed for asbestos, lead contamination and seismic safety, according to the report. Total infrastructure repair and rehabilitation could potentially exceed $1,000 per square foot, according to the report.

Those costs don’t, however, include multimillion-dollar seismic upgrades necessary to ensure the structural integrity of more than 100 buildings. Plus, the Nuns fire in October burned through part of the campus and destroyed about three dozen other structures, including several on-campus homes.

In the last few months, county officials have continued to work with the state to determine options for the future of the SDC property, including a potential governance structure, ownership criteria, security, and operation of utilities, fire protection and interim uses.

First District Supervisor Susan Gorin has said that her constituents want to see the land dedicated to public open space. She has articulated a plan that would see the state grant the property to the county, and then see it transferred to the adjacent state and regional parks systems.

In early May, Gorin sought and received $100,000 to pay for county staff time to prepare for and undertake negotiations with the state.

In a letter last month to SDC stakeholders, facility director Charlotte Jones said that “the last resident of Sonoma Developmental Center” transitioned to a new home on Dec. 17. Most employees would be signing out Dec. 28 and 31, though some staff would remain on campus and prepare it for its firm closure in June.

Contact Lorna at lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com.

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