Editorial: Sonoma’s winter of discontent

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The so-called “soft closing” of the Sonoma Developmental Center occurred Dec. 31 with such little fanfare that one could almost hear the clicking of the padlocks. But make no mistake, after 117 years, thousands of clients’ difficult lives made easier – and, rarely but still sadly, some made more harrowing through neglect and malfeasance – plus many more thousands of Valley residents raising their families through employment furnished at Eldridge, the demise of SDC is not merely the end of a single institution, it’s the end of a way of living. For better or worse – though most would say for the better – this type of institutional existence for disabled people exemplified by estates such as Eldridge are vanishing throughout the country. Their archaic buildings slated for either coming demolition, or ghost tours.

The next chapter for Eldridge is still pending. But, have no doubt, the preservation of 1,600 acres of pristine open space in the middle of one of the most pricey real estate regions in America isn’t going to come without a cost to whomever assumes the mantle of Eldridge’s future. Whatever that future turns out to be.

The sudden and unexpected winter closing of the Sonoma Cheese Factory has elicited all types of theories as to why an iconic Plaza business would make such an unprecedented move when only months prior it had been proposing a multi-million-dollar expansion into an upscale multi-vendor marketplace. The project – which envisions two restaurants, indoor and outdoor seating amid 25,000 square feet of indoor commercial space – was approved last April by the Sonoma Planning Commission, but the approval was subsequently appealed to the City Council by owners of neighboring buildings who fear the project is too big and bold to support the traffic, parking and everything else that comes with bustling commerce.

Among the theories about the timing of the closure, the most mundane is that it is what it is: a frugal business decision to cut losses during Sonoma’s slow season which still hasn’t recovered from the aura of the 2017 fires. The most audacious, on the other hand, is that it’s an attempt to force the city’s hand in deciding between an empty Sonoma landmark and a supposedly thriving, tourist-driven marketplace.

Here’s a third theory: An already discouraged development team, wary of the difficulty in advancing business development in Sonoma, is reconsidering its commitment to the project. Perhaps they made note that one Sonoma resident at a Planning Commission meeting last April 12, said that the proposed project would attract so many visitors, it would “choke parking to the point it’s going to make the Plaza completely unlivable.”

That resident was Logan Harvey. And he was just elected to the Sonoma City Council.

Lastly, a note on the imbroglio between the Sonoma Alliance Church and its Watmaugh Road neighbors over the church’s benevolent winter sheltering of homeless overflow clients from the Sonoma Overnight Support “Haven” shelter on First Street West.

As reported in Janis Mara’s story last month (“Neighbors Vow to Shut Down Homeless Shelter,” Dec. 21), some residents near the Sonoma Alliance Church have pledged to sue the fundamentalist congregation for “tens of millions of dollars,” as ostensible litigant Rick Deringer told the Index-Tribune, because he and others fear, without direct evidence they admit, the homeless could pose a danger to the neighborhood. They correctly point out that the church is not “zoned” for housing homeless. However, they insist admittance to the shelter should be dependent upon passing drug screenings – but that’s a clear violation of county policy.

Still, they say, the vagrants could be on drugs; they might be pedophiles. No one knows the back story of those seeking shelter, except somewhere, at some point, they’ve taken a bad turn.

While many Sonoma residents have reacted negatively to the legal threats against the church and its shelter, concerns and questions from neighbors about how the homeless program is being run shouldn’t be dismissed simply because we disagree with some neighbors’ conclusions.

However, until demonstrated otherwise, presence of a few homeless in a suburban church should pose no greater a threat to Sonoma than the rest of us – businessmen, librarians, developers or carpenters. Displaced people looking for a warm bed are no more a danger to our neighborhoods than any number of mentors, priests, gravediggers and journalists in the community. The concerns of the homeless are rarely how to loot our possessions and molest our children; they’re almost always what the next meal will be, and where they’ll lay their heads for the night.

Until a better place is found, the winter shelter should remain at the Sonoma Alliance Church, where it’s been for several winters prior without incident. And the county should swiftly examine what it takes to rezone the church in order for it to continue the good works it’s done for the Valley’s needy these past few years.

Sonoma Overnight Support officials have said they’re meeting this week with Alliance Church leaders and law enforcement officials to work out a plan to better allay neighbors’ concerns. Meanwhile, the neighbors haven’t taken any legal action yet; Deringer insists the issue is “one of security and safety.”

And it is. For those with homes, and for those without.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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