April 2018 SDC Update: With Closure Pending, Negotiations over Future Governance Begin

April 27, 2018.

Since the 2015 decision by Governor Brown and the Legislature to close the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC), California has been preparing for a December 2018 shutdown deadline for this state-run residential hospital for people with developmental disabilities.  With about 120 residents still living at SDC, the state appears to be on track and on schedule to move the remaining clients before year’s end. This is a particularly sad and challenging time for the residents, families, and employees of SDC, and the closure of this 127 year old institution will have a dramatic impact on the surrounding communities of the Sonoma Valley as well.

With closure only seven months away, there is an increasing focus on the critical question of who will take over control and management of the property from the California Department of Developmental Services (DDS). DDS has operated SDC for decades, and their staff includes hundreds of health care providers, police and fire departments, an experienced maintenance and engineering department, and people with decades of specialized expertise in running an integrated (and antiquated) power, water, transportation, and building network much like a college campus or small city. The state has indicated they have no intention of selling the property, and that it will cost somewhere between $10-15 million per year to just maintain the vacant facility in what is being called “warm shutdown” mode.

No one wants to see SDC vacant and unmaintained. With a core campus of approximately 128 acres containing over 130 buildings, there are major concerns about vandalism, public safety and basic maintenance and upkeep of aging buildings and infrastructure. The state will certainly develop some sort of site control and security to protect its assets, but the longer term governance solution is currently unresolved. A lot has happened in the first few months of 2018, and momentum seems to be building at the state and local level to try to address the governance and ownership questions concurrent with Governor Brown’s departure at the end of the year. Here are some short updates on the happenings of the last four months, and some thoughts on where this may all lead:

WRT Close to Releasing Final Site Assessment of SDC Property

As we have reported previously, the state commissioned the engineering and architectural firm Wallace, Roberts, Todd (WRT) in 2017 to conduct a full site assessment of the SDC property. The assessment was supposed to have been completed by the end of last year, but the October 2017 fires delayed the completion of WRT’s work. As part of their contract, WRT set up a “community advisory committee” (CAC) to provide feedback on study design and content. On March 22, the committee met at SDC for the first time since last September to get an update on WRT’s work. The information presented at the CAC  meeting will be released to the public at a series of upcoming meetings in May and June, but here are some of the highlights:

  • There are four main categories in WRT’s work plan: Stakeholder and Community Engagement; Ecological Planning and Green Infrastructure; Land Use, Site Planning and Reuse; and Market Strategy and Economic Feasibility. WRT will produce an “existing conditions” report, an “opportunities and constraint” analysis and a set of proposed guiding principles for future uses of SDC. The plan is to release the documents for public review at a local meeting in May/June.
  • Even though the documents have not been publicly released, WRT has completed their site assessment, and they shared some preliminary conclusions with the CAC at the March 22 meeting. These include:
    • A detailed inventory of the site’s ecological value, with a conclusion that SDC is “rich in biodiversity, and is regionally important for wildlife movement and its adjacency to protected lands…”
    • The October 2017 Nuns fire destroyed or damaged many of the buildings on the eastern side of campus in what was the historic agricultural use area of SDC
    • A “utility systems assessment” by WRT chose 53 buildings as a sample set to analyze “infrastructure condition as it relates to potential future uses.” With the exception of the potable water supply system, the conclusion of the assessment is that SDC’s mechanical, electrical, heating and cooling, sewer, stormwater and technology systems are either in need of significant upgrades, or are completely obsolete.
    • If a future use plan required a “central utility plant” and upgrades and repairs to all the existing systems, WRT estimates costs would exceed $114 million. The CAC group discussion acknowledged that it is highly unlikely that rebuilding SDC “as it was” makes any sense in the modern era where California building codes establish much more stringent energy and water efficient requirements.
    • WRT conducted a “rapid assessment” of 153 buildings to look at seismic safety and structural issues, accessibility, and the presence of hazardous materials. This assessment grouped buildings by the “eras” in which they were constructed, and came up with a cost estimate for each grouping for rehab and bringing them up to code. These cost estimates range from a low of $400 to a high of $1000/square foot, which is slightly higher than teardown and new construction.
    • The presentation on traffic patterns showed that most of the traffic was “very local with the great majority of trips taking place within Sonoma Valley.” CAC members questioned these assumptions, and we learned that Highway 12 traffic data had not been updated to reflect the last decade’s increase in “through traffic” between Sonoma and Santa Rosa.
    • The WRT team produced a set of “opportunities and constraint” maps that identified areas suitable for agricultural use, areas where there are “constrained conditions for development due to topography, access and sensitive ecologies”, and areas of the campus that seem well suited to redevelopment and reuse.
    • A preliminary economic analysis for site transition that examined “analogs” from different facilities around the country to provide examples and recommendations for models of governance and potential future uses for SDC.

The Eldridge Trust Concept: Creating a “Visionary Institution” to Govern SDC

SDC is also known as Eldridge, CA. The name is derived from Captain Oliver Eldridge who helped purchase the property back in the 1890’s, and it is a “census designated place” with its own zip code and post office nestled within the larger community of Glen Ellen. Based on the recommendations in the October 2015 “SDC Site Transformation Study” prepared by the Potrero Group, many organizations in the community have started to advocate for the formation of a new, stand-alone  ”Eldridge Trust” as a quasi-governmental institution created to manage, transform, and redevelop the SDC campus. Based upon models like the Presidio Trust, the idea is to create a “visionary institution…that brings together the particular cultural and historical heritage of its place with its community’s aspirational values — be they conservation, innovation, or a celebration of the arts — to create world class institutions that are greater than the sum of their parts.”

The buildings and campus are an obvious management concern, but so is the 700+ acres of open space and wildlife corridor lands that stretch from the eastern slopes of Sonoma Mountain to the Valley floor along Highway 12. These lands are currently open to the public and used by thousands of local residents and visitors for hiking, biking, and recreational use. Another pillar of the transformation of SDC is that “any transition of the SDC property provides safeguards for the area’s wildlife passage, habitat connectivity, and biological diversity.” So, concurrent with the idea of forming a new trust for the developed portions of the property, local organizations and county agencies have been developing a proposal for annexation of SDC lands into Jack London State Park and Sonoma Valley Regional Park.

As mentioned, Closure of SDC will be expensive. The State has indicated they intend to retain ownership of the property but there is no clear “heir apparent” to DDS for site control and management. The State has also expressed strong support for a community-led planning process that will preserve and enhance the character of the site, while leading to financial self-sufficiency. The Potrero Group study looked at examples from all over the country to develop case studies of successful “transformations” of large public facilities, and to learn key lessons in partnership, governance, land transfer, and funding strategies. Potrero pointed to the establishment of the Presidio Trust as perhaps the most innovative and successful model for Sonoma to consider. As they stated in their report:

The Presidio Trust is among the most successful of the models we examined. In the Trust model, the government created a wholly owned corporation that retains ownership of the land and facilities. Over a 15-year timeframe, the site has become financially self-sufficient while maintaining core activities that are important to the community and the government. Of course, the model is not without its detractors, but few models exist that successfully balance a remarkable transformation with a strong mission while simultaneously reaching self-sufficiency.”

Glen Ellen Speaks:  Community Signals Initial Support  for “Eldridge Trust” Model 

On April 16, over 250 people gathered in the multi-purpose room of the Dunbar Elementary School to learn more about the concept of a trust governance model for SDC, to give structured feedback on the concept, and to test community interest and support. The Glen Ellen Forum hosted the meeting, and after presentations by the members of the Forum’s SDC/Eldridge Committee, the Glen Ellen Historical Society, the Sonoma Land Trust, the Sonoma Ecology Center, and Supervisor Susan Gorin, members of the public were invited to ask questions. After the presentations, breakout groups were formed to provide input on a list of questions. In addition, the public had the opportunity to fill out comment forms and submit questions in writing. Detailed results of the community workshop will be released soon by the Forum, but initial feedback from the community signaled strong support for the trust concept, albeit with concern that local representation on the trust board would be critical. To view the workshop video, please visit the GE Forum SDC/Eldridge Committee webpage or watch it here.  


The Transform SDC Blog site was set up in 2014 to provide the Sonoma Valley community — and those interested in the future of the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) — a forum and information source for news related to the closure of SDC.  For more information, please post a response on the blog site, or email John McCaull at johnm@sonomalandtrust.org.

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