‘Small Is Beautiful’ Focuses on Sonoma Developmental Center’s Future
5 mins read

‘Small Is Beautiful’ Focuses on Sonoma Developmental Center’s Future

After moving from Santa Rosa to Sonoma in June 2023, award-winning filmmaker and environmental educator Carolyn M. Scott learned of plans to use the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) campus, which had closed more than four years earlier.

I first learned about the SDC development by talking to residents who posted comments on NextDoor,” Scott said. “I was intrigued and wanted to learn more. I interviewed a lot of residents to understand their perspectives and educated myself very quickly.”

Ultimately, her efforts resulted in the 25-minute film “Small is Beautiful,” which will be shown Sunday, July 14, at 2 p.m. at the Sebastiani Theatre in Sonoma. The screening is sponsored by Sonoma Valley Next 100 and the Praxis Peace Institute in Sonoma and includes a panel discussion.

“The film ‘Small is Beautiful’ — based on the book by EF Schumacher, which advocates for small and appropriate technologies, policies and communities that are better alternatives to the ‘bigger is better’ ethos — highlights the need for communities to engage deeply with their environment,” Scott said. “We need to know the lands we live on — so that we can cultivate them and share this resource with care and love.”

During her initial conversations, Scott learned that the state of California, which owns the land in Eldridge where SDC is located, was trying to sell the 200-acre main campus.

In October 2023, Scott met Gilroy, who inspired her to work on a film project about the SDC situation.

“It had a lot of false starts,” Scott said. “I almost gave up a few times because of the lack of support and the lack of local filmmakers I could work with.

“Fortunately, nonprofits involved in this fight connected me with incredibly knowledgeable conversationalists, and that’s when things started to take shape.”

Jim Coddington, a local drone operator, was a huge help.

“He generously offered his expertise pro bono to help me realize my vision of capturing the enchanting beauty of the Valley of the Moon,” Scott said. “My mission was to create a film Beautiful — to show what is at stake.

“Jim captured the sacredness of our region perfectly. And others came to play with me as I urged people to get involved, based on the growing footage we were recording.”

The 1,640-acre property represents one of the Bay Area’s premier wildlife corridors and is part of a committed rural community that values ​​its ecological, recreational and leisure resources.

In 1884, Francis H. Bentley and Julia M. Judah founded a small school for disabled children, including their own, in Vallejo. The school later moved to Santa Clara, and in 1889, the state of California began operating it and purchased land in the Sonoma Valley to make it its permanent home.

The scope of services provided at the center expanded over the years, as evidenced by name changes: in 1883, the name was changed to Sonoma State Home Hospital, in 1909 to Sonoma State Home, in 1953 to Sonoma State Hospital, and in 1986 to Sonoma Developmental Center.

In its early history, forced sterilization was routine practice, and there were several cases of sexual assault and abuse over the years. However, SDC became a haven for vulnerable and devalued people, housing, healing, and empowering them. SDC became part of the community because of the life-affirming treatment of its residents and caregivers—and remains beloved by many Sonoma Valley residents.

So when Permit Sonoma — the county’s planning and land development agency — came up with a plan for SDC that proposed 1,000 housing units on the main campus, many community members expressed outrage. The agency responded by reducing the number of units to 620, along with a luxury hotel.

In March 2023, the California Department of General Services selected Napa developer Keith Rogal and his partner, Grupe Company, to lead a $100 million redevelopment project for the site. The developers found a loophole that would allow the total number of apartments to be increased to a minimum of 930 units.

A coalition of Sonoma Valley citizen groups opposed the plan and filed a lawsuit. After reviewing the lawsuit, in April 2024, Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Bradford DeMeo ruled that the county violated the California Environmental Quality Act by failing to clearly define the number of permitted housing units; failing to address community concerns in a draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR); failing to adequately assess impacts to biological resources and wildlife evacuation; and failing to address the cumulative impacts of the project planned for the adjacent Hanna Center.

“I was thrilled and delighted to read the judge’s ruling,” Scott said. “Well done DeMeo! He clearly recognized the duplicity and illegality in this EIR and recognized the need for a plan that actually addresses the environmental sensitivities of this particular region.