Sonoma County is moving closer to developing a plan for the former site of the Sonoma Developmental Center following the recent release of a draft environmental impact report by Permit Sonoma.

The county has been grappling with how to develop and preserve the 945-acre property in Glen Ellen that formerly housed a state hospital and shut its doors in 2018.

Proposed designs combine housing and infrastructure while at the same time enhancing the site’s historical character and natural beauty, according to the county. It is what Sonoma County policy manager Bradley Dunn calls an “intentional community,” with walking and bike paths, eateries, a grocery store and housing.

“It’s somewhere that is a vibrant community that people want to live in, where they can walk, where they can interact with their neighbors,” he said in January.

That doesn’t mean that the entire acreage will be turned into a quaint yet bustling village. According to Dunn, only 180 acres of the site will be developed, leaving more than 700 acres as a preserve.

The state has taken the unusual step of allowing Sonoma County to determine how the land will be used before the state cedes the property, Dunn said.

“The state created a partnership with us but really allowed us to work with the community to program the land use,” he said. “As long as we protect open space, prioritize housing and affordable housing, and focus on economic development, they will let the county program the land use.”

“For now, we are really thinking about the type of development we want done and how that will impact the environment.”

Bradley Dunn, Sonoma County policy manager

Preliminary ideas for the site were presented at a Board of Supervisors meeting on Nov. 1, 2021 and the county has sought input from the community through workshops, meetings, and an online survey. The county’s plan would include preservation of Sonoma Creek, 1,000 housing units with 283 reserved as affordable housing, especially for adults with developmental disabilities; a walkable core with transit, pedestrian and bike paths; institutional uses to drive research and education and “drive employment,” and commercial, recreational and civic uses for residents.  

The environmental impact report has determined that three key things important to surveyed residents will not be impacted with the current development plan: preserving open space and wildlife, issues regarding water, and wildfire risk and evacuation routes.

The plan includes a fire station and a new connection to state Highway 12, for example. As for water, the EIR determined that onsite water sources will be able to meet all demands through 2045, whether years are normal or dry.

The EIR did find some hiccups involving historical preservation and vehicle miles traveled rates, the county said. Though the historic Main House and Sonoma House will both be protected, other historical structures suffer “unavoidable impacts” as a result of the development.

The state gave Sonoma County until the end of the year to figure out its priorities for the site and create a timeline. Completing the EIR was a big part of that goal.

As to what ultimately happens to the land, Dunn said a developer will most likely buy it from the state, though they will have to respect to the “blueprint” laid down by the county. Whoever ends up purchasing it will also have to invest at least $100 million in new infrastructure, Dunn said.

The county is enthusiastic about the possibilities.

“For now, we are really thinking about the type of development we want done and how that will impact the environment,” he said. “At the end of the day, it is both a guiding principle for the development and required under state law that we preserve the open space, and that is really important to us. We’re really proud of the work that we’ve been doing.”

Katy St. Clair got her start in journalism by working in the classifieds department at the East Bay Express during the height of alt weeklies, then sweet talked her way into becoming staff writer, submissions editor, and music editor. She has been a columnist in the East Bay Express, SF Weekly, and the San Francisco Examiner. Starting in 2015, she begrudgingly scaled the inverted pyramid at dailies such as the Vallejo Times-Herald, The Vacaville Reporter, and the Daily Republic. She has her own independent news site and blog that covers the delightfully dysfunctional town of Vallejo, California, where she also collaborates with the investigative team at Open Vallejo. A passionate advocate for people with developmental disabilities, she serves on both the Board of the Arc of Solano and the Arc of California. She lives in Vallejo.