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Commentary: Sonoma Ecology Center’s vision for SDC

If Sonoma Ecology Center has learned anything from 30 years helping our community care for its environment, it’s that everything is connected.

If we want to succeed at solving the most pressing environmental issues, including climate change and the biodiversity crisis, we must find solutions that address multiple challenges simultaneously: environmental, social and economic.

SDC is a place where all these interests come together. We have a chance to do something meaningful in this place for the site, our Valley community, and perhaps for life on earth. In the coming weeks, SEC will be engaging with the SDC Specific Plan process. The public has been invited to make recommendations on draft versions of this plan. Following are some of our recommendations, which are not adequately reflected in the current alternatives.

First, new development on the site needs to protect the site’s wild spaces. We would like to see the wildlife corridor expanded at its narrowest point along the north and northeast side of the campus, by pulling the boundary of the developable area inward. Setbacks along Sonoma Creek should be larger — 100 feet — to make room for a reestablished floodplain, riparian habitat, steelhead recovery and groundwater recharge. The wetlands in the eastern meadows should be protected and restored. The site’s many water features — reservoirs, springs, streams, wetlands — should be managed holistically to produce multiple benefits to the entire Valley’s people and ecosystems.

Developed areas should all have foot trails connecting to natural spaces, for all the benefits that occur from human connection with them, while assuring that they retain their ecological function. Paths and recreational areas are good, but they should keep away from the wildlife corridor and Sonoma Creek. Built areas and paths should use Dark Sky standards to reduce light pollution.

Second, we would like to see housing created that serves the needs of current and future generations, with homes for people of diverse economic and developmental capacities. Any housing plan for SDC must go beyond market-driven factors that are driving people — up to and including the middle class — out of the Sonoma Valley. Housing at SDC should be a model for reversing this trend, not exacerbating it. SEC calls for 75% of the site’s housing to be affordable to below-Average Median Income residents, including a mix of rental and owner-occupied units, whether via subsidy or affordable “by design.” Community land trusts are an excellent tool for creating permanently affordable housing. Frequent flexible transit is key for reducing driving and pollution.

Third, we would like to see an economic engine, scaled for the site, that serves current and future community residents with work that is meaningful and that provides a pathway for those who grow up here to stay. Combining work with housing reduces vehicle trips and creates a sense of place. For example, to tackle our planetary crisis, we propose a climate response center at SDC that researches, designs, and develops products and processes that mitigate and adapt to climate change. It can be funded by a partnership of public, private and social sectors — including the state of California, which recently pledged $15 billion to climate efforts — and governed using community-driven guiding principles.

The center would offer higher-paying jobs plus educational opportunities from internships to vocational training. An associated meeting and classroom space, with housing, could be shared by several institutions. A nonprofit hub could house local organizations, including SEC, that are involved in the site, and interpret the site’s natural resources to students of all ages.

This property offers a vanishingly rare opportunity to protect an irreplaceable ecological legacy while also providing housing and jobs for generations to come. Sonoma Ecology Center embraces this vision and invites you to join us. Please make your comments soon at engage@sdcspecificplan.com.

The county will also host a meeting to get feedback on the SDC alternatives, set for Saturday, Nov. 13, from 10 to 11:30 a.m., with a Spanish-language version set for Tuesday, Nov. 16, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Both take place on Zoom, and the link to join can be found on the county’s website at sonomacounty.ca.gov/PRMD/Long-Range-Plans/Sonoma-Developmental-Center.

Richard Dale is the executive director of the Sonoma Ecology Center.

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