By Christian Kalen
With the completion of the Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR), Sonoma County is one step closer to adopting the SDC-specific plan that will outline the parameters for the redevelopment of the former Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC). Ironically, the release of the FEIR comes around the same time as the previously announced Oct. 24 deadline for selecting a developer for the 180-acre core campus on the site — a decision the state of California now says can be pushed back to 2023.
There are few significant changes in the totals in the FEIR from its earlier draft, although greater attention is paid to the environment, affordable housing, and Native American concerns (now referred to as “tribal culture preservation”). and the new report more definitively prohibits large-scale commercial farming uses in the mandated open space conservation area.
The revised plan goes into more detail about protecting the wildlife corridor and even expands it by removing existing buildings “on the northeast side of campus and ensuring that the new development stays within the smaller development footprint.” The developer must also “ensure that the wildlife corridor is not further restricted at its narrowest point along the north side of campus.”
The open space definition is also specified: “The Preserved Open Space designation is intended to preserve open spaces outside of the core campus for public use and benefit, including living space, active and passive recreation and small park facilities, ecological services and water resources, and limited agricultural use.”
And in a significant addendum prepared as part of the review process, the plan states: “Hotels, wineries, tasting rooms, commercial agriculture, concessions, housing and other buildings intended for human habitation (outdoor) other than use or for firefighting, are not permitted.”
However, protection of the open space is the responsibility of the chosen buyer, who will be selected by the state’s Department of General Services (DGS) by the end of the year. The specific plan states, with added wording, “The owner/operator of the protected open space must create a open space plan, subject to county approval, to manage the rich diversity of resources on site…” Whatever plans are made and executed need to be reviewed by the county and determined in accordance with the specific plan. State and county officials have promised that approximately 755 acres of designated open space will be converted to county or state parks as part of the final disposition of the 945-acre property.
Other notable changes include the renaming of Fire House Commons to Sonoma House Commons; renaming Eldridge North (the residential area on campus at the southeast corner, adjacent to a community self-identifying as Glen Ellen) to Eldridge Place; correcting the map position of Eldridge Cemetery; omission of the “Winton tribes” listed among the first known residents of the planning area (leaving Coast Miwok and Pomo as the earliest residents); and a number of other adjustments resulting from public comments in the review process.
Of course, housing is the core concern of the specific plan and the surrounding community as well. The plan openly calls for 283 units of affordable housing and is expected to total 1,000 housing units. Of the standard-market housing that makes up the difference, the plan calls for 50 percent to be designated as “missing middle” housing, and for affordable units to be integrated into all neighborhoods rather than isolated in a separate community.
Another important adjustment on the housing front is the new requirement that the project must construct affordable housing concurrently with other housing units. Five neighborhoods — Agrihood, Eldridge Place, Creek West, Core North, and Core South — are recognized, each with its own density and maximum number of housing units that can be contained. And three of the five would also have housing parcels for people with developmental disabilities, for a total of five.
“Permit Sonoma appreciates everyone who has taken the time to provide feedback to us, both in public meetings and in formal comments,” said Bradley Dunn on behalf of Permit Sonoma. “The final draft made changes to strengthen wildlife protections and solidify the phased construction of affordable housing in direct response to the public meetings, formal comments and discussions with groups during the draft review process.”
‘This comment is noted’
However, not everyone is happy with the verification process. “We are all very disappointed with the way public contributions were (not) included in the final EIR,” said Arthur Dawson, who, as chair of the North Sonoma Valley Municipal Advisory Council (NSV MAC), wrote a widely shared critique of the draft EIR. “The handling of the case has seriously eroded public confidence. You get the feeling that we are being ignored.”
As just one example, he points to the EIR’s reference to the project’s location as “between the unincorporated parishes of Glen Ellen and Eldridge,” which is vague and imprecise. Dawson notes that Glen Ellen as a community does in fact surround the SDC campus, despite the census designations cited separately identifying Eldridge and Glen Ellen.
“A project’s location is fundamental to analyzing its impact,” Dawson wrote. “A poorly recorded site may skew the impacts identified and analyzed in the EIR” and increase the likelihood of legal action.
The FEIR responds to Dawson’s observation: “Notes on this comment… It is not within the purview of the EIR to address community names and boundaries.”
Additional disillusionment with the review process can be found in the many comments submitted by the public since the draft EIR was published in August, which are attached to the extensive FEIR, totaling 2,518 pages in the PDF document. This FEIR document and its predecessors can be found on the county website: sdcspecificplan.com/documents.
Included in the FEIR release are appendices with comments submitted on the draft by the following organizations in addition to the NSVMAC: the Sonoma Ecology Center, the Glen Ellen Historical Society, Jack London Park Partners, the Valley of the Moon Alliance, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sonoma Land Trust as well as 192 individual letters and two public entities, the City of Sonoma and the Sonoma Valley Fire District.
Many of these comments, and the panels that make them, openly advocate the so-called Historic Preservation Alternative, which would value the historic use of the site, limit new construction and thus improve the environmental impact of a larger project, and limit the housing unit number to about half of the preferred one 1,000 However, the plan falls short of the state’s goal that it “must be designed with intent to reduce uncertainty, increase property values, expedite marketing, and maximize interested potential third-party buyers.”
“Several comments state that the county should adopt this instead of the project because the Historic Preservation Alternative is the ecologically superior one,” summarizes the FEIR. “This comment is noted. The draft EIR is an information document that provides decision makers with an environmental analysis when considering adoption of the specific plan. The decision as to whether or not to accept the project, or an alternative, rests with the decision makers (in this case, the County Board of Supervisors).”
In other words, it all comes down to the board when it meets in December to approve the SDC-specific plan, including any revisions yet to be made.
While these are, in theory, the final documents produced by Permit Sonoma as part of the SDC-specific planning process, there is still a verification mechanism built in. The Sonoma County Planning Commission was scheduled to review the final EIR and specific plan at the October 27 hearing, after the deadline of this paper. The final board hearing is scheduled for December 16, just before the year-end deadline for submitting the district plan to the state.
The seven-week period between the Planning Commission’s review and the Board meeting may indicate that parts of the documents need to be revised, possibly to include additional hearings by the Planning Commission. “A lot of people think that the EIR is inadequate, and if these deficiencies are not properly identified and addressed, it is poor planning and leaves the door open to lawsuits,” said Tracy Salcedo, who has closely followed the development of the SDC-specific plan its beginnings.
In fact, deadlines have always been fluid in this process, and the problem is that the state’s DGS (which has ultimate authority in transferring ownership) and Permit Sonoma have different deadlines on their calendars. “The new schedule gives the planning commission time for deliberation while also maintaining the ability to complete the SDC planning process by December 31, as outlined in the district’s agreement with the state,” Dunn said.
Meanwhile, DGS, which in June announced October 24 as the date for announcing the selected buyer, will not meet that deadline. “DGS is still evaluating proposals,” wrote Jennifer Iide, a department’s public information officer, in response to a query from Kenwood Press. “We don’t expect to announce an award in October. The announcement could come in 2023.”