The final plan for the former site of the Sonoma Developmental Center has been approved by the county’s Board of Supervisors after a protracted process between the county and community to determine the future of the 945-acre Glen Ellen property, the county announced.

Sonoma County had been grappling with how to develop and preserve the site that formerly housed a state hospital. The state took an unusual step in allowing the county to determine how the land would be used before it ceded the property to them.

The county had to determine how much of the space to set aside for preservation, development and affordable housing, with advocates for all three weighing in about everything from transit to tree frogs.

The approved plan will include the protection of 700 acres, an enlarged wildlife corridor that removes current development from the northeast corner of the former main campus and an expanded setback to preserve the Sonoma Creek area. Plans for 620 units of housing will be subject to the county’s affordable housing goals.

The site will also become its own little walkable neighborhood, with paths for foot and bike travel along with commercial, recreational and civic uses for the greater Sonoma Valley. The county says that the development will create more than 900 jobs.

“Our community has expressed strong concerns over the scale of potential development in a rural area on the SDC campus and vulnerability to fire danger,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin in a statement released by the county Tuesday. “While this compromise plan is not perfect, it visualizes a thriving addition to Glen Ellen with housing, jobs and protections for open space and natural resources. The journey is ongoing.”

Shameful past, promising future

State law now requires any new development to contain affordable housing, some of which will be set aside for adults with developmental disabilities. The Sonoma Developmental Center was once home to many people with disabilities throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

The site has a shameful past of being the nation’s epicenter for forced sterilization and other abuses and is a bad memory for many elderly people with developmental disabilities who grew up there.

Earlier this month, a group of community leaders and parents broke ground on a memorial dedicated to past residents of the developmental center that will contain all the names of those laid to rest at the cemetery and a viewing platform.

More than 1,400 residents and some staff members have their final resting place at the site, which buried its first residents beginning in 1892, according to state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa. The last burial at the cemetery took place in 1939 and the area then fell into neglect.

“The memorial is about reinforcing dignity and respect for the people who were laid to rest here,” Dodd said. “We owe it to them and their families to ensure their lives are remembered.”

The project is projected to cost $700,000 and will be completed next fall.

The Sonoma Developmental Center closed its doors in 2018 as California moved towards a more independent living model for people with disabilities.

The new designs for the site 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.