Sonoma Developmental Center site assessment back on track, but closure certain

In spite of the October fires, the fate of SDC remains on course for complete closure by the end of the year, 2018.|

SDC Resources

Sonoma Developmental Center history and resources

SDC closure plan

Transform SDC

Community Advisory Committee meeting, March 22, 1 – 5 p.m., SDC campus (building to be announced)

The fires that ravaged Sonoma Valley during October affected many lives in countless ways, displacing hundreds locally and thousands across the county in its wake. But in spite of that disaster, the fate of the Sonoma Developmental Center remains on course for complete closure by the end of the year.

That was the original date set by Gov. Jerry Brown in his May Revision to the 2015-16 state budget, and the Department of Developmental Services is sticking to it.

At one time SDC cared for almost 1,200 patients, but that number has been eroding steadily. In May 2015, there were about 400 in residence, all of them by definition unable to care for themselves without professional assistance.

As of this month, there were only 149 individuals living on the Eldridge campus.

Most have been transitioned to residential alternatives in the North Bay. These smaller-scale facilities are compatible with a national trend away from large-scale collective housing for individuals with developmental-service needs.

But the fate of the residents is only part of the story of SDC's impending closure.

Also to be resolved are future jobs for the nearly 900 full-time employees still working at the facility – another number that has been declining in recent years with the number of people they serve.

SDC maintains a “career center” offering support to employees looking for vacancies, completing applications, taking exams for state jobs or transferring within state service, as well as retirement counseling and other services. In particular they are trying to find current staff jobs within the five counties where they currently live.

The Career Center sponsored a job fair for SDC employees in September, and will sponsor another this spring.

Then there's the location – 860 acres of rolling hills and valley floor between Sonoma Mountain and the Mayacamas, a recognized wildlife corridor for mountain lions and other non-human inhabitants, as well as the 140 buildings that have sprouted up over the decades since the former Sonoma State Hospital was first established at the site in 1891.

The future of the land itself, and the buildings on it, are being evaluated by a site assessment survey undertaken last year by the state's official lease-holder, the Department of General Services. Wallace Roberts & Todd (WRT) won the $2 million assessment contract in May 2017, for architectural and engineering services to prepare “a comprehensive existing conditions study and an opportunities and constraints summary and analysis for SDC.”

The first public involvement in the assessment took place in September 2017, at a meeting of the SDC Community Advisory Committee (CAC) whose members include a range of local stakeholders.

The meeting featured a review of preliminary findings in the SDC site assessment and break-out sessions for small groups to discuss the implications of the preliminary findings.

In the report, WRT landscape architect Jim Stickley voiced his admiration for the SDC campus's “unexpected vistas that reorient you to the site experience” and “hidden architectural surprises and gems.”

“Entering the natural landscape on the western side and the rolling aspects of the eastern side, there are strong influences from the oak woodlands,” his report continued.

“There is a well-developed trail system that passes through different ecologies. Camp Via provides opportunity to connect with the orchard, grasslands, and evergreen forest of the western slope, reading as bands of forest trees from a distance… Going up to the lake provides a great view down upon the campus. The lake is an astounding surprise and is much loved.”

Such descriptions are heartening to those who hope the landscape and its natural purposes can be preserved, but the further evolution of WRT's study was brought to an abrupt halt by the Nuns Fire in the second week of October.

Almost a third of the property's acreage was burned and, while few buildings were destroyed, and none in the complex's core, all of 241 then-residents and staff had to be evacuated.

They were bused first to Adele Harrison Middle School and the Sonoma Veterans Memorial Building in Sonoma, then to the Dixon Fairgrounds in Solano County.

But by the end of the month most of the residents were back, and if the site assessment was dealt a setback, it's gotten back on track.

The next SDC Community Advisory Committee meeting is scheduled for March 22, from 1 to 5 p.m. at the SDC campus.

The specific agenda and related meeting materials will be released soon, as well as the date of the long-awaited SDC community workshop, originally scheduled for Dec. 2. It is now anticipated for some time in May.

“If everything goes according to plan, WRT would then start a reuse alternatives/scenario planning effort,” said John McCaull, of Transform SDC, a project launched by the Sonoma Land Trust in hopes of ensuring the Eldridge property is propertly conserved.

The “resuse alternatives” is what McCaull calls “phase two” of the assessment process. McCaull also speculated that Gov. Brown might want to “determine the post-DDS (state Department of Developmental Services) ownership and operational responsibility question for SDC before he leaves office,” which would be in January of 2019 – almost simultaneous to the departure of the last resident of Sonoma Developmental Center.

The Department of General Services is the state agency that manages the land – not to be confused with DDS, which oversees the development center itself – and DGS has little latitude for such speculation.

“The current effort is focused on completing an existing conditions report. The report may be used to inform future plans for the SDC,” said Jennifer Iida, a DGS public information officer.

But, she added, “The timing of the report is not related to the closure of the facility.”

That leads to the next big question in the ongoing colloquy over the fate of SDC.

As McCaull put in a recent Transform SDC blog post, “Once the site assessment is completed, we will reach a critical juncture: Will WRT continue to lead the effort to develop reuse alternatives for SDC, and can we act quickly enough to have a plan in place before SDC closes in December?”

Only time will provide the answers.

Contact Christian at

SDC Resources

Sonoma Developmental Center history and resources

SDC closure plan

Transform SDC

Community Advisory Committee meeting, March 22, 1 – 5 p.m., SDC campus (building to be announced)

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