The expression “change is the only constant in life” has never been more relevant or appropriate than in these last six months since the fires reshaped our county. So much of our life and world here in the Valley of the Moon is suddenly different, and we all search in many ways for the familiar. We now sit on the brink of yet more change and uncertainty with the closure of our beloved Sonoma Development Center at the end of this calendar year. Enormous opportunity can often be wrapped in a package of tremendous challenge, and this is what we have before us.
This site has a long and rich history of the presence of Native Americans, Spanish, and early settlers, followed by the development of the railroad, land speculators and agriculture – and of course the Beauty Ranch owned by Jack London just next door.
The land was first purchased and donated to the State as a home for the most behaviorally challenged and medically fragile members in California — the first of such homes in the state. Sheltered by the Sonoma Mountains, the cornerstone for the main building was laid in 1890.
For over 100 years, the Sonoma Development Center has been woven into the lives of generations of Sonomans — it seems we all know people who have worked at SDC and/or had family members reside on the campus. Many community members grew up playing softball on the fields, attending Special Olympics events, visiting Junior Farm, and more. In fact, the SDC was once the largest employer in the County, and more recently the largest employer in Sonoma Valley. Beyond its role as an employer and a space of infinite natural beauty, the campus has been home and a place of tranquility for fragile community members.
This site is an extremely important ecological asset for Sonoma Valley. Riparian corridors along the Sonoma Creek, its tributaries, and the critical wildlife corridor through the site protect the biodiversity and wild inhabitants of the area. Additionally, we are now attempting to document and appraise the watershed and carbon sequestration through the “Healthy Lands, Healthy Economies” initiative of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation & Open Space District. These values will make our decisions over the next few years even more critical for the future of our Valley.
In the 1980s large sections of the upper reach of the site were annexed into Jack London State Park, excluding the in-holdings of Camp Via and the Orchard. Agriculture Preservation & Open Space District purchased a large conservation easement across the top of the site to connect the Sonoma Mountain Trail along the ridge line, completed only a year ago. Both of these parcels are preserved in perpetuity and open to the public for hiking in an integrated network of trails with Jack London State Park and Sonoma Mountain Regional Park.
Many are unaware that Sonoma County Regional Parks purchased several hundred acres of SDC in stages between Arnold Drive and Highway 12. Additional parcels of land north and south of Sonoma Valley Regional Park expansion are now in the process of developing trails and recreational amenities.
With the imminent closure of the SDC just months away, our community faces a new reality. What was first projected to be a fast timeline has just been propelled by the State into “turbo speed” as we find ourselves working quickly to draft a governance model and process for transferring the land as well as developing a timeline for community engagement.
Our community is eager to come together to offer ideas and be a part of the planning for the future of the Sonoma Developmental Center. Those 250+ Valley residents attending the Glen Ellen Forum several weeks ago enthusiastically participated in charrettes outlining the constraints and opportunities on the campus, while still recognizing the importance of the history of the center and the special part SDC played in caring for its residents over the past decades.
The first step in the community engagement process will happen at a public meeting hosted by State Senators Mike McGuire and Bill Dodd, Assemblymember Cecilia Aquiar-Curry and WRT (Wallace Roberts Todd) to discuss the community placement progress of the residents of SDC, closure of the site and assessment of the buildings and infrastructure.
I hope you will be able to attend this meeting. The Sonoma Developmental Center is a treasure for all of our community.