Feb 052024

The promise kept: SDC open space becomes state parkland 

By Tracy Salcedo
Originally published in Kenwood Press, January 15, 2024

It’s been a long time coming, but the promise has been kept. The exquisite natural landscapes surrounding the core campus of the former Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) are now formally protected as public parkland.

The transfer of jurisdiction to California State Parks of 650 acres straddling Arnold Drive in Glen Ellen was announced on Jan. 4 and was cause for celebration for the many public entities and local residents who have worked for nearly a decade to ensure the scenic lands were protected. The acreage encompasses the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor, a “critical regional wildlife linkage connecting the Marin Coast to Blue Ridge and Lake Berryessa”; spectacular oak woodlands, meadowlands, wetlands, and redwood groves; and a popular but unofficial trail network. It represents the “largest addition to state park lands in Sonoma County since 2010,” according to a State Parks press release.

It also fulfills a mandate included in the legislation overseeing transformation of the historic site, which was home to people with developmental disabilities for almost 130 years. Those residents, along with their caretakers and neighbors, cherished the wildness of the SDC’s surroundings, a legacy now preserved for posterity.

The new state parkland falls under the umbrella of Jack London State Historic Park, bringing its total acreage to more than 2,200 acres, and for the time being will be managed by State Parks rangers and administrators.

Appreciation, excitement, and relief
Natural landscapes surrounding the core campus of the former SDC are formally protected as public parkland. Photo by Paul Goguen

Elected officials, nonprofit environmental organizations, community activists — everyone commenting on the transfer — were excited and relieved to have the deal done.

“California State Parks looks forward to stewarding this property, working through the planning process with the public, and advancing public outdoor access to more Californians,” said California State Parks Director Armando Quintero in the press release; and Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot hitched the new parkland to California’s 30×30 Initiative: “Expanding the state park in this way is one more creative step toward meeting our 30×30 commitment to conserve 30 percent of our lands across California by 2030.”

“We made a promise to the community at the beginning of the transition process that the vast majority of [SDC] land would be protected forever,” State Senator Mike Mc-Guire said in the release. “80 percent of the former SDC campus will now be protected forever and it’s a big win for the Valley and our County.”

“This is a huge win for preserving and stewarding this incredible open space, and it’s a milestone Senator McGuire and I have been working to make a reality for years,” said Senator Bill Dodd. Senator Dodd’s chief of staff, Ezrah Chaaban, as well as other legislative aides, were integral to the transfer’s execution.

“We deeply appreciate the leadership State Parks took in acquiring these lands — in acquiring open space that belongs to all of us,” said Matt Leffert, executive director of Jack London Park Partners (JLPP). The nonprofit JLPP runs Jack London State Historic Park in partnership with State Parks and is expected to help manage the new parkland in the future.

According to John McCaull, the Sonoma Land Trust [SLT] has been working toward “two interdependent outcomes” since 2014, when it launched its Transform SDC initiative. The first goal was to “complete transfer to state or county park agencies of high-value open space and wildlife corridor lands on the SDC property outside of the core campus … this announcement achieves our first outcome, and the state has fulfilled its commitment.” Achieving the second goal — maintaining the permeability of the wildlife corridor within the developed campus — is an ongoing endeavor.

“Sonoma Ecology Center (SEC) is excited and gratified that our community and our leaders have succeeded in doing something extremely important for our Valley,” said Richard Dale, SEC’s executive director. “We’ve worked together for decades to assure that the critical natural resources on the former SDC campus, particularly the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor, are understood and protected. This is a milestone, a major accomplishment. It is something that future Sonoma Valley residents and visitors will experience the benefits of, and the natural world will be better because of.”

Alice Horowitz, community activist from Glen Ellen and curator of Eldridge for All, said the transfer “is a huge win for our environment and certainly something to celebrate. A big ‘thank you’ to all who have advocated for permanent protection of these environmentally sensitive acres for so many years.”

“Good news for open space!” wrote Sonoma’s Teri Shore on behalf of the Sierra Club Redwood Chapter. “It’s a big win for statewide conservation.”

What comes next?

Over the next few years, the general plan for Jack London State Historic Park, including the new parklands, will be revised and then implemented. In the interim, “the public will be able to continue to access the lands as they have been doing under existing conditions,” said Matthew Allen, deputy district superintendent for State Parks’ Bay Area District.

Trail users on the west side are now “crossing boundaries that no longer exist” between SDC property and state park property, JLPP’s Leffert observed. “State Parks already has a presence on the former SDC lands,” he added. “We have a very strong partnership with State Parks and are in constant communication about managing recreational use of these lands.”

An interim operations plan will be developed over the next few months, Allen said, and a web page will be created and updated “with information regarding park rules, policies [and] maps.”

State Park rangers are already patrolling the new parkland. “They are there to educate the public about permitted uses and deter and/or enforce unlawful behavior (like swimming in the reservoirs), as well as provide for public safety,” Allen said.

Vegetation management activities focused on reducing wildfire risks are already underway along Orchard Road and other routes in the SDC open space. Trail users can also expect the installation of informational, interpretive, and wayfinding signage, portable restrooms, and trash cans in the park.

The general planning process will include community and stakeholder engagement, tribal consultation, creation of management units, and an environmental impact report. “State Parks will keep the public apprised of public engagement opportunities,” the press release states.

Community imput would be integral to planning for the new addition, Leffert said. Though JLPP “won’t have a formal role in co-managing with State Parks” until the general plan revision is complete and a management agreement is in place, “we will be engaging the community in the process and guaranteeing all voices are heard.”

Sonoma Land Trust (SLT) also looks forward to participating in the general planning process. “There is work to be done right away to create trail maps, provide a safer and more environmentally sustainable visitor experience, improve fire safety, and better understand wildlife use and movement across the property during this interim period,” McCaull said. SLT has secured $560,000 from the Community Foundation of Sonoma County (Sonoma Valley Fund) “to help pay for trail maps, signage, and other improvements;” work with State Parks to study wildlife movement; and work with CalFire, through the Sonoma Valley Wildlands Collaborative, “to improve habitat and fire safety conditions.”

Questions and concerns remain

As anyone who’s been following the transition of the SDC knows, a definitive map delineating the boundaries of the core campus and the open space has never been publicly available. But the property has long been divided in two, with about 750 acres deemed open space and the core campus encompassing 180 acres. The campus is in the process of being sold to a developer who plans to build 930 dwellings, a resort hotel, and 410,000 square feet of commercial space on the site.

When the open space transfer of 650 acres was announced, the first question that came to many minds was, “What about the other 100 acres?”

The formal response from State Parks: “Of the approximately 750 acres of open space connected to Jack London, roughly 650 acres — or close to percent — are being transferred to State Parks in this transaction. Roughly 50 acres may go to CalFire in the future in support of their mission and roughly 50 acres of open space/buffer land will temporarily remain under Department of General Services ownership. These buffer lands include landscape, fire buffer, and wildlife corridor area surrounding and adjoining the SDC core campus. State Parks will manage/operate all 750 acres as ownership of the remaining acres is finalized.”

In other correspondence with the Kenwood Press, Allen noted that formal legal descriptions “are still being worked through” and that “there will be a different but accurate number down the road.”

The transfer does not include the reservoirs — Fern Lake and Lake Suttonfield — which Allen said would be reserved for the development. This raised concerns for a number of advocates, including Dale, who wants to “assure water resources on the site benefit the public trust as intended.”

The 50-acre parcel set aside for CalFire, located in the southeast corner of the property along Sonoma Highway, also raised eyebrows, as the site impinges on the wildlife corridor.

Finally, the impacts of intensively redeveloping the campus, now nestled in parkland, remain a concern.

“Developer Keith Rogal’s plans to build out the SDC core campus to the tune of 930 housing units, a fourstory hotel, a four-story ‘innovation center,’ 8,000 square feet of nonresidential construction, and 3,060 parking spaces will undoubtedly inflict irreparable harm, not only on the surrounding community, but on the newly protected acres as well,” said Horowitz.

“We know there is a long and complicated road ahead for the campus development,” McCaull said.

“But this is a moment to celebrate,” the one-time Glen Ellen resident reiterated, and the ecology center’s Dale agreed.

“The main feature of this remarkable news is that most of the open space lands of the former SDC campus are going to be permanently protected, managed for the benefit of people and ecosystems, now and into the future. That’s a cause for celebration.”