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Sonoma’s vision for open space, affordable housing included in state budget request

Two of Sonoma’s most desirable goals – affordable housing and open space – are being baked into plans for the extensive Sonoma Developmental Center property, as part of the state’s recognition of the “unique and historic resources of the property,” according to a three-year budget request made on April 22 by the Department of General Services.

The three-year timeline was confirmed by state Sen. Mike McGuire, whose district includes the developed campus and much of the surrounding open space.

“We have been working for the past four years to protect and preserve the open space watersheds and wildlife corridors while at the same time establishing a community-driven process that will plan for the next generation of the SDC campus,” McGuire told the Index-Tribune.

McGuire has been working with his fellow legislators, state Sen. Bill Dodd and Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, as a delegation from Sonoma on the SDC process.

“The SDC Coalition has been working with state legislators for years to move to this point,” said 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin about the group of local stakeholder organizations she’s been working with as the Developmental Center transitions to its next stage. “We wanted a community-driven process for the future of the SDC, and we were rewarded.”

The detailed inclusion of budget numbers through June 2022 signals that the state is stepping up to honor the commitment it made to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on April 5 to bear the cost of managing SDC for the next three years, while the property is in “warm shutdown” mode, giving the county time to prepare a specific reuse plan for the historic property.

Included in the first of the three budgets, for 2019-2020, is $3.5 million to Sonoma County to establish a community planning process that will, in McGuire’s words, “put neighbors at the front of the table when it comes to the future development of the Sonoma Developmental Center campus.”

Those funds would help underwrite amendments to the General Plan and zoning rules in land use planning over the next three years.

The request notes that the management of the Developmental Center campus on July 1 will be transferred from the state Department of Developmental Services to the Department of General Services (DGS).

The DGS is essentially the business manager for the state, handling real estate, among its other responsibilities.

The DGS requested $21 million for the coming fiscal year, with amounts of just over $11 million for the two following years to 2022. The total will be $43.7 million between July 2019 to June 2020, for operations, maintenance and land-use planning costs; and just over $11 million for each of the next two years for police and firefighters, maintenance and other services.

“We’re going to be working hand in hand with the county to ensure that they hit this three-year community planning deadline,” said McGuire.

He added, “This three-year timeline is firm and non-negotiable.”

The proposal’s support for two local priorities, affordable housing and open space, could not be better news to the members of the SDC Coalition.

John McCaull, of Sonoma Land Trust, one of the partners in the coalition, called it a “positive step forward.”

“This budget proposal is another strong indication of the state’s commitment to partner with local interests to forge a solution for the future of SDC that meets the needs of our community, while also protecting the property’s invaluable open space and wildlife corridor lands,” said McCaull.

The emphasis on affordable housing mirrors the local emphasis on the issue, as the cities of Sonoma, Healdsburg, Windsor and Santa Rosa have all prioritized housing in their recent civic initiatives, Sonoma with its just-launched “Housing Our Community” town hall series.

“California is experiencing an acute affordable housing crisis,” reads the budget request. “The cost of land significantly limits the development of affordable housing. It is the intent of the Legislature that priority be given to affordable housing in the disposition of the Sonoma Developmental Center state real property.”

However the affordable housing projected for the site would not necessarily relieve the regional housing shortage; rather, the budget’s trailer bill language specifically states that any housing proposal should be “appropriate for the property,” and that “priority be given to projects that include housing that is deed-restricted to providing housing for individuals with developmental disabilities.”

Whether or not the 700-plus acres of open space surrounding the core SDC campus is added to existing parks – such as nearby Jack London State Historic Park and Sonoma Valley Regional Park – appears to be up to local authorities to decide, though final distribution of the land remains in the state’s hands.

Yet the message in the budget letter clearly spells out the method and goal of that dispensation. “It is the intent of the Legislature that the lands outside the core developed campus and its related infrastructure be preserved as public parkland and open space.”

Environmentalists and open space advocates have applauded the agreement.

“Finally adding the spectacular natural lands of the Sonoma Developmental Center to the existing parks makes perfect sense,” said Teri Shore of the Greenbelt Alliance.

“The tricky part will be developing housing in the middle of the parks and wildfire corridor while minimizing new fencing, lighting, noise and roads,” she added. “We need to keep the footprint small and climate-smart.”

The budget request also outlines staffing allocations during the shutdown period for managing and maintaining the property, grounds and trail maintenance and other needs. Although the state will continue to provide police and fire services to the campus itself, fire prevention and suppression in the surrounding landscape will fall to the county.

Final vote on the state budget will take place sometime in June.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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