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Editorial: Two times California trusted Sonoma Valley with its land

Like the Jack London park deal, California should pay for its deferred maintenance at SDC.|

One thing was made clear in a meeting this week with stakeholders on the future of the Sonoma Developmental Center, including 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin, the Sonoma Ecology Center, Sonoma Land Trust and housing advocates: More time is needed to find the appropriate solution for the nearly 1,000-acre property that includes crumbling infrastructure, open space and an ecologically sensitive wildlife corridor. The state’s January deadline for a decision is simply unrealistic.

“No one has had the bandwidth to really give this the attention it needs,” said Eamon O’Byrne, executive director of Sonoma Land Trust. Between disruptions caused by the pandemic and the newness of the process — as the state has never before handed over control of such an asset to a county — he suggested another two years would be a reasonable time frame.

“The state has made it very clear the state is not interested in extending the timeline,” Gorin responded, adding that a few more months may be feasible, but decisions need to be made, and soon.

But, like so many important Sonoma Valley decisions, no one can seem to agree on anything other than the fact that they don’t like the three options presented by county consultants, which each include a hotel, at least 900 units of housing (25% affordable), and open space. The high cost of deferred maintenance adds even more complication, as it makes popular ideas, like a high rate of affordable housing, less financially realistic.

“How do we go back to the drawing board?” O’Byrne asked.

If recent history has taught us anything, it’s that Sonoma Valley does well when the state and county take a backseat and allow time and space for local voices to find a path forward. Need proof? Just look to Jack London State Historic Park.

Back in 2012, in the throes of the Great Recession, the state ran out of funds to keep all of its majestic State Parks opened to the public. It announced plans to close the jewel that is Jack London park. No more meandering trails through the redwoods on the way to Wolf House, or trips to the museum to see where Jack and Charmian spent their days. That reality was not an option for the Glen Ellen community, so they got to work.

Within a few months, the nonprofit Jack London Park Partners drafted a workable plan that would allow locals to take over management of the park. The state was nervous, it had never allowed one of its parks out of its direct control. But after five months of negotiations, a 5-year agreement was signed in April of 2013.

Cut forward to today, and the park is thriving, with more visitors than ever, thanks to a savvy and creative board of directors, who brought in nearly 300 regular volunteers and a slew of moneymaking events. Transcendence Theatre Company’s seasonal “Broadway Under the Stars” garners $100,000 each summer for the park, while the “Call of the Wild” fundraiser this year raised $550,000. By the end of the first contract in 2018, the park was back in the black, with even more money invested in restoration and preservation.

“We’ve done over $1 million in capital improvement projects,” said Chuck Levine, who helped form Jack London Park Partners and remains chair if its advisory council.

With Jack London, we have a proven track record of succeeding where the state has failed, because our local community knows what the local community needs.

But there’s another lesson to be learned from Jack London and the park’s relationship with the state. When negotiating the original contract, the state attempted to push its multimillion dollars of deferred maintenance onto the Parks Partners. They pushed back, knowing if the dam the state long neglected broke, it should be on the state to fix it.

Once again, it seems, the state is attempting to pass the buck on years of its deferred maintenance, this time at SDC. With more than $100 million of maintenance and remediation required, the financial feasibility of any future at SDC is already in peril. That is why all three alternatives include a hotel, something that seems universally unpopular with the community, but would generate revenue to help cover the hefty cost of restoring the property to the health and safety standards necessary.

It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, as the state still owns Jack London State Historic Park while it’s looking to sell SDC. But the underlying point remains the same: If it broke on the state’s watch, the state should pay to fix it. After all, it’s sitting on a $30 billion surplus.

Can you imagine what might be possible without that financial albatross weighing down our potential options for one of the most noteworthy properties in Sonoma County?

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