The state’s pullout from SDC.
There is a hackneyed phrase in wide circulation that may be overused precisely because it so perfectly describes a condition we frequently face. “The only thing worse than being blind,” the saying goes, “is having sight but no vision.”
The grandmother tree in Jack London State Historic Park is somewhere between 1,800 and 2,000 years old, with a diameter of 14 feet and a ragged, charred and gnarled trunk that bears the scars of a long ago fire that may have burned away its top. With a circumference of about 44 feet, it would take seven sizable adults to encircle it with outstretched arms. But since its height is not commensurate with its width, it doesn’t stand out like a sentinel tree above the surrounding forest canopy. So, if you don’t know it’s there, you might not find it.
That tree, as the crow flies, is less than a mile from the center of the Sonoma Developmental Center, but you can’t see it from there because it’s hidden in plain sight.
The same could be said of SDC, an ecological, cultural, hydrological and historic treasure that is largely invisible, even to many of the motorists who routinely drive through it. The Sonoma Developmental Center, roughly 900 acres of what some people consider the single most valuable piece of real estate in Sonoma County, is currently caught in an eddy of insufficient care and concern. The state of California, which in the 2017-18 fiscal year spent $62,263,275 on payroll alone at SDC, has exhausted its capacity to finance its own failure to see what it is caring for.
Now, having almost completed the task of emptying out the fragile remnants of its former population, the parallel bureaucracies that hold SDC’s fate in their hands appear eager to simply dust off their suits and ties and walk away from the mess they have largely created.
Let’s be clear about two things: First, the people who populate those bureaucracies are not abject and indifferent. Many of them care deeply about the people they have transferred (or displaced) from Eldridge, and their concern is reflected in the quality of many new “community” homes created for the former SDC residents.
But their decision to empty the campus of all human tenants and social interests while insisting that the County of Sonoma and private stakeholders come up with a financially self-sustaining plan for “transforming” the property, presumably by the end of next June when approved state funding runs out, is indifferent and irresponsible at best, revealing that now-proverbial condition of having sight but no vision.
Here’s what should have happened, assuming we accept the flawed premise that all caregiving should be eliminated from the site: The state has known for years, arguably decades, that SDC was rowing against the political, economic and social tide. Visionary agencies and policymakers had time galore to explore possible future uses, to fund studies and prepare options, to conduct a site assessment years ago, instead of draping it around the necks of local stewards just as the gates are swinging shut. Forcing local stakeholders to come up with some mechanism to monetize the property at the eleventh hour bespeaks not only a lack of vision but also an institutional lack of concern.
“OK, that’s it, we’re done with it, sorry about the disrepair, good luck fixing everything. We’ve got to go now. Bye,” seems to be the unspoken mindset.
Many of us who live in close proximity to this treasured spot take offense at this apparently cavalier posture. Especially since SDC represents an extraordinary opportunity to construct a model of resource management that meets community needs for housing, nonprofit workspace, recreational infrastructure, cultural, educational and artistic facilities and even carefully vetted small commerce.
The highest and best uses of SDC can be explored, planned and implemented collaboratively with private interests and local and state government participation. But the state can and should provide seed and bridge funding to make that happen. Otherwise this golden opportunity is doomed to failure and ultimate disappointment for all involved. And that outcome would dishonor the many thousands of people—friends and neighbors to many of us—who have lived, worked and played there for more than a century.
Editor and Publisher