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‘Toothless, vague, limited to hopeful intentions’: Judge upends Sonoma Developmental Center plans


A judge delivered a stunning setback to Sonoma County planners Friday, upending the approval of plans for the redevelopment of Sonoma Developmental Center.

It’s a decision that could stall, at least temporarily, a proposal to turn the 133-year-old campus into a residential and commercial community.

Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Bradford DeMeo, weighing a lawsuit filed by a coalition of Sonoma Valley citizens groups, ruled the county violated the California Environmental Quality Act by failing to clearly define the number of housing units allowed; address the cumulative impacts of a pending project at neighboring Hanna Center; respond to community concerns in the draft environmental impact report; and adequately gauge impacts on biological resources and wildfire evacuation.

Glen Ellen residents have been voicing those concerns loudly and frequently for several years. However, they have found little traction in convincing the county or the California Department of General Services, which is overseeing the sale of the state-owned site, which at 945 acres is one of the largest redevelopment projects in Sonoma County.

DeMeo’s ruling now resets the conversation and gives hope to community members who have been advocating for a scaled-down project at SDC, rather than the 1,000-housing-unit plan put forth by developers Keith Rogal and the Grupe Company.


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Sonoma County releases business plan for climate hub at Sonoma Developmental Center


The county released a business plan describing “a place where key stakeholders, leaders and private enterprise can work together to find new responses to the ongoing climate crisis.”

Sonoma County is throwing its weight behind a proposal for a climate action center as part of the redevelopment strategy for the historic Sonoma Developmental Center property in Glen Ellen.

The county released a business plan for the Center for Climate Action on Wednesday, describing the concept as “a place where key stakeholders, leaders and private enterprise can work together to find new responses to the ongoing climate crisis.”

The initiative is being funded by a $250,000 grant from the California Coastal Conservancy.

“This business plan marks our latest progress in SDC’s future,” Tennis Wick, director of Permit Sonoma, said in a news release. “As we implement the state’s mandate to protect open space, construct housing and provide economic development, the Center for Climate Action and Innovation concept is already attracting interest that could result in employers returning to campus.”


Posted on Categories Land Use, Sonoma CoastTags , ,

Op-Ed: Coastal protection threatened where it started


Those of us who spent much of our lives working to protect the coast are dismayed and shocked that the Board of Supervisors would even consider overturning the well-thought-out recommendations of their own Planning Commission to benefit one particular East Coast developer whose bulldozers are aimed at sensitive natural habitat right above the oceanside bluffs near Timber Cove.

Can you imagine a four-lane freeway running from Petaluma to Jenner, built to service high-density subdivisions blanketing the scenic blufftops between Bodega Bay and the Russian River, and permanent closure of a swath of shoreline to block off access by the public?

These were just a few of the environmental threats the Sonoma Coast faced in the 1970s. Outspent financially and confronted by an aggressive billboard campaign underwritten by corporate oil and development interests, California’s voters and state Legislature simply said “enough” and set in motion an orderly process to ensure that the California coast would survive in perpetuity.

California’s voters had just adopted Proposition 20 — the statewide coastal initiative — in 1972, largely in response to a series of disastrous schemes targeting the Sonoma Coast. By 1976, state legislators had made coastal protection permanent.


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Citizen groups sue to block Sonoma Developmental Center environmental report


The suit seeks to force the county to revise the environmental impact report for the 945-acre campus to address what it calls critical issues and provide more accurate analyses of subjects like emergency evacuation.

Two community organizations filed a lawsuit challenging the environmental impact report prepared for Sonoma County in its bid to redevelop the site of the dormant Sonoma Developmental Center in Glen Ellen.

The plaintiffs, Sonoma County Tomorrow and Sonoma Community Advocates for a Livable Environment, call the report — a massive 2,500-page document prepared by the urban planning firm Dyett & Bhatia and submitted in October — “a shortsighted plan with serious environmental consequences.”

The suit, filed Wednesday in Sonoma County Superior Court, seeks to force the county to revise the report, the plaintiffs say, to better address critical environmental issues and to provide more accurate analyses of subjects like emergency evacuation and protection of a vital wildlife corridor.

The suit states that the report fails to take into account the center’s rural setting, limited roadways, wildfire vulnerability.


Posted on Categories Forests, Land UseTags , ,

Land Trust of Napa County agrees to buy controversial Walt Ranch property from Hall Wines


Attempts by owners Craig and Kathryn Hall to transform the wooded ranch into a vineyard were at the epicenter of a wider battle between open space and grape growing in Napa County.

For more than a decade, the owners of Hall Wines have waged an effort to develop several hundred acres of oak woodland in eastern Napa County into vineyard, a plan that has sparked anger in Wine Country residents and embroiled county Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza in an ongoing public controversy.

The dispute came to rest at the epicenter of a wider battle over the future of open space in the North Bay, and the expanding footprint of the region’s famed wine industry.

A potential solution appeared unexpectedly Wednesday, when the Land Trust of Napa County and Hall Wines issued a joint statement announcing the land trust’s intent to buy Walt Ranch, the 2,300-acre property at the heart of the debate.


Posted on Categories Land Use, TransportationTags , , , , , , , ,

Wetlands advocates work to raise Highway 37

Dan Ashley & Tom Didion, ABC7 NEWS

There’s a vocal debate over building a better Bay Area, by building a better highway. At stake is not just traffic, but potentially vast stretches of restored wetlands.

When Kendall Webster gazes across the levees and farmland in southern Sonoma County, she can envision the tidal marshes that once flushed water back and forth from meandering waterways to San Pablo Bay.

“And so this whole flatland here was a mosaic of tidal wetlands,” she explains.

It’s a vast expanse of wetlands that the Sonoma Land Trust and their partners are working to restore.

“And you know, California is investing in climate, the way no other state in the country is right now. So we think that this is the natural infrastructure project that the state should be highlighting,” Webster maintains.

To make that vision a reality, the Trust has joined with Save the Bay and more than a dozen environmental and land management groups, urging Cal/Trans and the state to remove the one barrier that could open up natural marshland across the entire North Bay.


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Sonoma County releases draft environmental report for Sonoma Developmental Center


A long-anticipated draft report released Wednesday calls for approximately 1,000 housing units — including 283 affordable units — to go along with 940 on-site jobs and a resident population of 2,400 at the site of the historic Sonoma Developmental Center near Glen Ellen.

Those numbers, which are in line with previous proposals, are bound to add fuel to the ongoing debate about how best to use a property that has been called a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity by neighbors and officials alike.

“I think 1,000 is too big, and 283 is too small,” said Tracy Salcedo, a longtime Sonoma Valley resident, writer and advocate for the former institution for the developmentally disabled. “And we are stuck in a conundrum where financial feasibility is dictating how we do right thing. The right thing should be to provide more affordable housing, and turn our creative energies toward that rather than inundating the north end of the valley for what’s essentially too few affordable units.”

Sonoma County’s land use planning and development agency released the draft Environmental Impact Report and accompanying Specific Plan on Wednesday.

Totaling more than 800 pages, the two reports constitute the first narrowly drawn proposal for redevelopment of the iconic 945-acre site, which was home to a state-run hospital for the developmentally disabled that was established in 1891 and closed in 2018.


Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, Land Use, WildlifeTags , , , , ,

Salamander protection tied to permit streamlining in Sonoma County vineyards


The origins of a new public-private solution for the longstanding environmental quandary facing Sonoma County grape growers operating in critical habitat for the endangered California tiger salamander can be traced to recent reforms of county permits for erosion control on vineyard projects.

Under an agreement with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the North Bay Water District will oversee a program in which owners of participating vineyards that have adopted and implemented best practices to preserve or add salamander habitat can avoid being sued by third parties for “incidental take” of the rare amphibian under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The deal also offers participating growers assurance that vineyard operations can continue without additional permits.

The Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Sonoma County population of the salamander as endangered in March 2003. Shortly after, the agency designated a wide swath of the Santa Rosa Plain as critical habitat. That put in place a regulatory system requiring costly studies and special permits for farming and many other activities in the area.

The most affected properties were near the species’ breeding grounds in seasonal wetlands and existing ponds or reservoirs, along with surrounding areas at higher elevations.


Posted on Categories Land Use, WaterTags , , , , , ,

Sonoma County vintner, his business and DA’s Office reach $925,000 environmental damage settlement


A Sonoma County wine executive and his business have reached a $925,000 settlement with the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office following an environmental complaint that accused them of causing significant damage to streams and wetlands while constructing a vineyard in 2018 near Cloverdale, county District Attorney Jill Ravitch announced Friday.

Deeply ripping apart the terrain, tearing down trees and pushing them down streams without permits under the county’s Vineyard & Orchard Site Development Ordinance, and lacking permits for grading roads and installing culverts were among acts that Hugh Reimers and Krasilsa Pacific Farms, LLC were accused of in August 2019.

Uprooting oak woodlands and discharging sediment into Russian River tributaries caused major environmental damage, which violated the California Water Code and the federal Clean Water Act, according to a 2019 investigation by the Regional Water Control Board.

The business also did not comply with the terms of a 2019 cleanup and abatement order, which required the full restoration of the 2,278-acre property to its previous condition.

A statement in May said the impact of these actions are still evident, as they threaten the migration, spawning, reproduction and early development of cold-water fish in the Little Sulphur, Big Sulphur and Crocker creeks.


Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, Land UseTags , , , , , ,

North Coast rail dispute intensifies with competing bids from Skunk Train and coal export company


A mysterious Wyoming-based firm believed to be pushing a controversial coal-by-rail export proposal along the Northern California coast has made a new filing with a powerful federal board to advance its bid to seize control over the defunct lines running between Willits and Eureka.

The June 1 filing indicated the so-named North Coast Railroad Company, which wants to ship Rocky Mountain coal out of the port at Humboldt Bay, had at least $15 million in the bank — enough to clear an initial federal hurdle in which a company must prove it can cover the cost of a line’s scrap steel and two years of maintenance.

But that company is not the only entity vying for control of abandoned track running through Mendocino and Humboldt counties — along a right of way state lawmakers hope will one day welcome a 320-mile multiuse trail stretching south to San Francisco Bay.

In an unrelated venture, Mendocino Railway, owners of the tourist excursion Skunk Train, are petitioning the federal rail board to restore 11 miles of track north of Willits to run loads of gravel. Mendocino Railway also filed with the board indicating it had the resources to take on that project.

Either bid could complicate the more broadly-supported venture: the proposed Great Redwood Trail, a recreational route planned from Eureka in the north to Larkspur in Marin County on the south. A state agency has already begun planning the conversion of abandoned segments of the rail line in Mendocino and Humboldt counties for the trail.

The three competing ventures must now vie for the endorsement of the U.S. Transportation Board, a body that aims to preserve the nation’s rail corridors but has proven amenable to allowing recreational trails along disused rights of way.