Commentary: SDC’s inconvenient truths
Many ideas and plans have emerged for SDC (Sonoma Development Center) over the last several years. We all love its beauty and potential, but I repeatedly get asked, “What’s going to happen there?”
My “new town” plan is based on long-held planning principles and guided by the County’s Economic Feasibility study (See Chapter 9, Market Demand Analysis SDC Specific Plan Profile and Background Report), but is only one of many approaches.
However, any plan must address several inconvenient truths:
1. The state owns the property of over 1,000 acres and 1,000,000 square feet of existing buildings and will sell it. I know of nothing like it anywhere else in the county.
2. The state and Regional Parks are set to take ownership of and manage the 800 acres of open space, leaving the 200-acre “campus” up for sale to a private entity. The “campus” is falling apart above and below ground. Within the open space are water rights (Fern and Suttonfield lakes) for over 1,000 acre feet, the future status of which is unclear but clearly important to the Valley.
3. SDC’s location is physically isolated in a local economy that is aging, with agriculture, hospitality and housing (including second homes and retirement) as predominate uses. Commercial and retail uses are limited.
4. No governmental entity has shown any serious interest in the site.
5. No commercial entity or institution has shown any serious interest in even a portion of the site.
6. The economic study indicates a market and need for new housing and there must be enough of it to pay for upgrading and replacing the existing infrastructure.
7. A hospitality use is a distant second economic possibility.
8. None of the existing buildings meet current building codes including seismic, toxic or State Title 24 (energy efficient) building codes.
9. Whoever ends up buying the SDC campus after the county adopts an EIR and Specific Plan will probably require a long-term development agreement with the county before closing on the sale — which will take another 12-18 months.
So, who will buy SDC from the state? No matter the price, I hope the buyer has many decades of successful residential experience and has multiple specialized development partners (senior housing, multifamily, mixed use, hospitality, historic renovation, nonprofit housing etc.) all of which have proven track records and sources of long-term equity and debt.
However, I know that “hope is not a strategy,” so the main goal of the specific plan and community support has to be for a sufficiently “economically feasible” and “flexible” plan that can attract the most experienced, deep-pocketed developers who are not afraid of high risk. That, at least, is a strategy going forward.
Victor Gonzalez is a resident of Sonoma.