End of an Era

Oakmont Rotary Club
  • Jack Monahan

Our club members had an informative visit recently by John McCaull of the Sonoma Land Trust (SLT). He spoke about the closing of the sprawling Eldridge Estates on Arnold Drive, better known as the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) . Mr. McCaull has practiced law in California since 1990, providing legal, real estate and land use planning services, complemented with 30 years of lobbying and advocacy in Sacramento for environmental organizations. His current priorities for SLT are planning the future of the SDC. He is also concerned with increasing the acreage of wild lands and open space included in Hood Mountain Regional Park and working with private landowners to protect lands in the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor.

The SDC was ordered in 2015 by Gov. Jerry Brown to begin a three-year closure process, with an official ending date of December 31, 2018. At its peak SDC had housed more than 3,000 residents. Originally known as the California home for the Care and Training of Feeble Minded Children, the SDC opened at its current location in Eldridge in 1891. The center was also known as Sonoma State Home and Sonoma State Hospital until 1986 when it was renamed the SDC. The property has slowly downsized over the years as models of care for the developmentally disabled grew smaller and more centrally located to community residential neighborhoods. Upon its closing, 400 patients were moved out, and, as the largest employer in the Valley, a significant negative impact was felt in the local economy.

There are 200 hundred buildings on the SDC property, most of which are 100 years old. What will become of them? The cost to maintain the property will be about $115 million a year; the cost of renovation about the same. According to a site report by the state Department of General Services, just upgrading the heating, cooling, electrical and storm drainage systems to current standards would cost nearly $115 million. In addition, assessments for asbestos, lead contamination and seismic safety could exceed $1,000 per square foot. And, the Nuns fire in October 2017 burned through part of the campus, destroying three dozen structures, including several on-campus homes.

Sonoma County rejected an offer for the SDC from the state, declaring they were not ready to take on such a huge liability. County Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose district includes Sonoma Valley, has heard from constituents who want to see the land dedicated to public open space, a plan that would see the state grant the property to the county, and then see it transferred to the adjacent site and regional park systems. No final decision has been made on the disposition of the SDC but State Senator Mike McGuire, who spoke to our club March 8, has taken the lead on this project.

Without a final decision made, at our meeting Mr. McCaull answered questions as best he could about the future of the SDC and remains fully committed to staying involved.

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