Two organizations have filed a lawsuit against Sonoma County, requesting the court to put on hold the development of the site of former Sonoma State Hospital until alleged flaws are addressed in the environmental impact report submitted for the sprawling project.

Sonoma County Tomorrow Inc. and Sonoma Community Advocates for Liveable Environment (SCALE) filed the suit on Jan. 18, alleging that the required environmental impact report filed prior to the project being approved in December was incomplete, short-sighted and “deeply flawed.”

At issue are the open spaces and wildlife preserves on the site, fire risk, and preservation of historic buildings.

“The EIR vision for [the site] and the adopted Specific Plan are beyond the capacity of its rural setting due to the realities of limited roadways, wildfire vulnerability, and wildlife corridor needs and is unrealistic and unresponsive to well-documented concerns about water supply, open space, biological resources, historic resources and a broad range of environmental issues,” reads the plaintiffs’ claim.

A rendering shows what a redeveloped Sonoma Developmental Center site could look like. Trees surround historic buildings in the project’s Central Green, where the iconic main building still stands. (Dyett & Bhatia Urban and Regional Planners via Sonoma County)

The goal of the plaintiffs is to require the county to revise the EIR to address their concerns and to ensure environmental mitigation plans designed to protect the area are made explicit.

Sonoma County did not respond to requests for comment about the lawsuit.

A rare opportunity

The Sonoma Developmental Center used to be a home for people with developmental disabilities for over a century before it was shuttered for good in 2018.

The state of California offered Sonoma County a rare opportunity to decide what to do with the 945-acre Glen Ellen property before it ceded it to them instead of imposing its own will on the expanse, provided the county took feasible steps to preserve open spaces, natural resources and wildlife, and historic structures. The state also said that any new housing developments should include affordable housing units, but that is already state law.

The final approved plan includes 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.

According to the county, 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 the development will create more than 900 jobs.

“The intensity of development is completely out of scale with the rural community that surrounds the site and, because of the high wildfire risk, could endanger the lives of thousands of current and future residents of Sonoma Valley.”

Tracy Salcedo, Sonoma Community Advocates for Liveable Environment

Plaintiffs would like to see development on the site scaled back “to bring it into compliance with environmental law” and to prevent the risk of wildfires.

“The intensity of development is completely out of scale with the rural community that surrounds the site and, because of the high wildfire risk, could endanger the lives of thousands of current and future residents of Sonoma Valley,” said SCALE spokesperson Tracy Salcedo in a statement released after the suit was filed.

The risk, SCALE alleges, lies in evacuation routes — or a lack thereof — the led residents to struggle to escape 2017’s Nuns Fire.

The approved EIR addressed this issue and found that adding 2,400 residents and about 1,000 workers to the site would have virtually no impact on evacuation travel time. But SCALE says this analysis “defies the real-world experience of Sonoma Valley residents in both 2017 and in the 2020 Glass Fire.”

‘The journey is ongoing’

Supervisor Susan Gorin said in December that the county recognizes some of the more controversial aspects of the finalized plan.

“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,” she said in a statement released by the county. “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.”

It’s the “ongoing” journey part that the plaintiffs would like to be less opaque, saying that environmental protections in the development are “weak and inadequate” and offer no mitigation plan for any adverse impacts that may arise.

A paseo in the Agrihood portion of the redeveloped Sonoma Developmental Center includes a community garden, depicted here in a computer rendering. (Dyett & Bhatia Urban and Regional Planners via Sonoma County)

They cite California’s “Look Before You Leap” law, which states that public agencies must consider the environmental consequences of their projects before they build. The plaintiffs allege that the Specific Plan’s environmental plan and other preservations for the site have the words “should” when they should have the words “shall.”

They don’t want to see the area urbanized, but if housing is built there, the plaintiffs would like to see a housing-first approach that prioritizes residential units over commercial and hotel development. They would also like to see the affordable housing element maximized.

Finally, the groups want to see adaptive reuse of historic buildings on the site instead of removal.

“Holding the county responsible for doing the job right is imperative,” said Salcedo. “We, as citizens and taxpayers, deserve nothing less. The property, as critical as it is to our health and wellbeing, deserves nothing less.”