Story and Photos David Bolling
Sonoma Creek continues to babble beneath the Arnold Drive bridge, Canada Geese still gather in gaggles on the surface of Suttenfield Lake, while poppies and lupines and shooting stars blanket the meadows where the firestorm recently raged.
The Sonoma Developmental Center seems almost sleepy these days, devoid of even a single resident human, basking in the sweet embrace of spring as forces far beyond its control prepare to shape its future.
It is a time of renewal, of expectation and hope, now that the forced removal of residents has been quietly completed. And, despite the promise and surprise of an April 5 announcement that the State of California will not abandon the property on the 30th of June, but will instead pay for three years of “warm shutdown” and fund the cost of creating a plan for its future, it is also a time of uncertainty.
That’s because, while disposition of the roughly 800 acres of open space is expected to be seamlessly separated for State and County parks use, the future of the central campus and its 150-odd buildings remains highly uncertain. And the seemingly generous decision by the state to, in effect, build a ramp to a sustainable future, what that future will look like is utterly unclear.
The only thing that is clear is the need for a business and development plan that will credibly guarantee a permanent revenue stream at least equal to the roughly $6 million to $12 million (both wild guesses) it will take every year to maintain, preserve and protect the property.
Members of the SDC Coalition, which has included key stakeholders in a five-year-long effort to build just such a launch pad as the one laid out now, were cautiously jubilant in the chambers of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors when that April 5 revelation was heard. Only 2nd District State Senator Mike McGuire, from Healdsburg, who had been doggedly working on such an outcome for months, had seemed confident it would happen.
Richard Dale, executive director of the Sonoma Ecology Center, whose offices are tucked into a wooded bower beside Sonoma Creek on SDC property, described the announcement as, “a very different scenario than we were expecting. We are delighted. Thank you for the chance of doing something that’s right, something that’s visionary.”
That may be a premature judgment given the level of uncertainty over what kind of a plan could simultaneously be financially viable and sustainable, include housing and perhaps some commercial enterprise, without triggering local opposition, and without adding an unacceptable level of more motor traffic on Arnold Drive.
When the California Department of General Services (DGS), which will take control of the property at the end of June, submitted its three-year budget request April 22, the contents of the request left some key questions unanswered.
The budget proposal seeks $43 million over the next three years to fund the development plan and warm shutdown costs. But the cost of “decommissioning” key elements of the campus infrastructure—including the archaic power plant that is currently powering heating, cooling and water distribution—is estimated at about $20 million, and there is no indication what other decommissioning expenses will be and who will pay for them.
A survey of the entire campus and all its aging buildings was conducted by a consulting firm in 2017, and the conclusion reached was that the demolition and renovation needed to make the campus usable would cost around $100 million, a figure some experts in facilities construction found unrealistically low.
The historic brick administration building in the heart of the campus, which has been siting empty for decades, was the victim of teenage vandals several years ago who broke into the building, turned water on in some of the bathrooms and left it running. By the time the break-in was discovered, water was flowing out of windows and much of the building’s interior was ruined, from both water damage and mold. The building is a national registered landmark, and no one knows what it would cost to renovate it, or tear it down, although one recent, unconfirmed estimate was a minimum of $30 million.
Whatever the ultimate cost of decommissioning, demolition and renovation, the State has given no indication of who it expects to pay for it.
Affordable housing is specifically referenced in the DGS budget proposal, but it would seem highly unlikely that any developer interested in building work force, senior or low-income housing would be willing to shoulder the cost of a multi-million dollar clean up. And, the County can’t afford to do it.
Also unclear is how the state plans to provide for warm shutdown heating and cooling if it eliminates the power plant before a replacement plan is in place. The current gas-powered boiler is not only inefficient compared to modern systems, but it violates EPA and California clean air standards and SDC has been paying monthly fines for the pollution on an ongoing basis.
Another issue that will necessarily arise if housing is developed on the site, is that more housing means more traffic and, in the inevitable EIR process, traffic impact on Arnold Drive, through Glen Ellen and through Boyes Springs, will have to be studied. A mile-long stretch of Arnold Drive close to Hanna Boys Center, has no shoulders and presents a dangerous hazard to bicyclists who frequent the road. Increased traffic generated by redevelopment of the SDC campus can be expected to exacerbate that problem.
None of these concerns are meant to suggest that housing would be a mistake on the SDC campus. It’s hard to imagine an economic model for the property that doesn’t include housing.
But implicit in that understanding is the state’s responsibility for creating the conditions at SDC that will require such expensive remediation.
Whether or not it is legal for the State of California to simply park the property like a derelict car and walk away is an important question to answer early on. But legal or not, it’s not right. The U.S. Navy certainly has not been able to walk away from its Hunters Point superfund site in San Francisco.
Setting those issues aside for a moment, the one thing that is abundantly clear is that the state is giving the County of Sonoma, and its local stakeholders, a drop-dead date for completion of a viable transition plan. That date will be midway through 2022, in three short years, which is not a lot of time.
When the nonprofit Presidio Trust took over most of the San Francisco Presidio in 1996, Congress gave the trust until 2013 to become financially self-sufficient. They achieved that goal in 2005, eight years early.
The Presidio is hardly a comparable facility to SDC, but the principle of allowing a reasonable amount of time for local interests to shape a successful future for a former government-owned property is at least instructive. Assuming the necessity of a comprehensive and complicated EIR for what ever plan is agreed on, three years could prove to be an unreasonably short time.
Meanwhile, the question percolates—what would the appropriate use of uses be for the property?
Only one comprehensive proposal has been put forward—by the California Equestrian Park & Event Center (CEPEC)—and it is almost certainly a non-starter, although not for lack of trying.
The CEPEC proposal was originally to build an “Olympic quality” horse facility with the capacity to hold 27,000 horses, 125 stables, 140 trainers, on-site veterinary services on several hundred acres. It would be, according to CEPEC president Wanda Smith, the biggest horse facility west of Kentucky, would cost $200 million, would net $13 million a year while generating $250 million in tourism revenue for Sonoma County.
Rebuffed by virtually every county official, CEPEC claims it has scaled back its proposal and is ready to take over SDC, with profitability out of the gate. “We will generate millions of dollars of annual revenue with no need for money from the county or the state,” Smith told the April 5 gathering in the Supervisors chambers.
Absent that proposal, ideas currently making the rounds include some sort of performing arts center in conjunction with the Transcendence Theatre Company; a maker space; and adjunct to the Sonoma County Children’s Museum; an adjunct SRJC campus; a training site for water system operators; a heavy equipment operators training site; incubator space for green tech; artists live/work space; a legitimate theater, and an outdoor adventure playground in conjunction with the existing ropes course.
Finding a mix of uses that covers costs, serves a wide array of public interests and values while preserving the ecological integrity of the property will be no small order. And doing it in three years will be a sizeable challenge.
The State, meanwhile, has already committed itself to improving the historic cemetery and building a memorial wall to commemorate the people who lived and died at the Center.
And Daniel Kim, director of DGS, told the April 5 Supervisors meeting, “This is unlike any process we’ve done before. My role is similar to that of an executor of a trust. I’ve been given this property, and I have to manage it on behalf of the state, and think about that in terms of what’s in the state’s best interest … including appropriate housing, which is a top priority of the administration, protection of wildlife and open space, economic growth and development, the consideration of the community benefit impact.”
Accordingly, he concluded, “The goal is that by July, 2022, DGS will have sold, leased or transferred jurisdiction (to the property).”