Water vs. housing debated at SDC

First environmental review meeting showcases the two main issues of concern to neighbors.|

California was in a rush for black gold -- oil and petroleum -- when the Sonoma Developmental Center opened its doors in 1891. But as the campus is redeveloped and faces its environmental review stage, a chasm between advocates for housing and protectors of water has formed.

Permit Sonoma entered the environmental review of the SDC’s redevelopment, where they will host a number of public meetings to receive feedback about environmental concerns for the 945-acre property that includes a wildlife corridor.

From the comments that residents provided to Permit Sonoma on Thursday, Feb. 17, the biggest concern were two resources that California has less and less of: water and housing.

“We now face again, a 1,200-year drought in Sonoma Valley, and if you've been looking at the groundwater studies, you can see they're in peril,” Glen Ellen resident John Stalcup said. “What data shows we have sufficient groundwater to support doubling, tripling quadrupling The number of residents and households? It's not valid through these projects.”

Sonoma Valleys two major water reservoirs, Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino, are each only about 61-62% full at the moment, which is a stark drop from their water levels in 2020 that neared or surpassed their total water supply capacity.

While not out-rightly confronting water hawks, housing advocates like Sonoma resident Tom Conlon said the affordable housing crisis is reaching a drastic point that could affect the economy throughout the area.

“We have a crisis on our hands here in the Valley,” Conlon said. “Many of the groups that are trying to find employees to live, to work in their businesses or in their organization simply are having great difficulty.”

Conlon added that Permit Sonoma should consider transitional housing during the redevelopment of the SDC campus to provide an emergency solution for workers who find themselves unable to afford housing in Sonoma Valley, where a one-bedroom apartment costs $1,975 on average according to the housing website Zumper.

Caitlin Cornwall the project director of the Sonoma Valley Collaborative, a local organization seeking housing solutions, said that there isn’t a property or area that can address the housing shortage like the SDC can.

“If our community is to persist and be healthy, we need more... homes that working people can afford, that retired people can afford or single older people can afford,” Cornwall said. “And we need to look to the locations that have already been developed to put those new homes. So (the SDC) is by far the biggest opportunity that we will see in our lifetimes.”

If the housing isn’t built at the Sonoma Developmental Center, she said then housing projects would have to be developed in unincorporated areas that could lead to suburbanization of the natural areas.

“We, the members of the Sonoma Valley Collborative want to protect the open space and beauty of Sonoma,” Cornwall said. “So our members don't want to see sprawl, don't want to see open space areas converted to pavement and buildings. We want to see our urbanized places developed as urbanized place.”

Yet climate hawks at the meeting believed that Permit Sonoma needs to “think globally and act locally” before redeveloping any part of the SDC.

“The priority number 1 of any EIR has to be climate mitigation,” Gary Schouest said during his public comment. “And construction of any kind is highly suspect in this environment and should be seriously double-thought as being a move that is not conducive for solving the problem.”

While Permit Sonoma organized the meeting to gain insight into sensitive ecological areas on the 945-acre SDC campus, many of the same debates about housing density and natural resource use permeated the public meeting on Thursday. Cornwall, in her efforts, sought to describe the housing crisis in Sonoma Valley in existential terms.

“If a community wants to perpetuate itself healthily, it needs to be a place where families can live, where children can live, where young people can get jobs, where the owners of local businesses can afford to live in a community where their business is,” Cornwall said. “And we’re losing that. We’re losing housing stock that provides homes to the people who make a community.”

Contact Chase Hunter at chase.hunter@sonomanews.com and follow @Chase_HunterB on Twitter.

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