Jeremy Nichols is a board member of the nonprofit Bird Rescue Center that serves Sonoma County, and he is troubled. The county is kicking the bird hospital out of its Quonset hut in the middle of 82 acres of public property known as Chanate.
Forested hills straddle Chanate Road as it winds through eastern Santa Rosa toward the ashes of Fountaingrove. The county has promised the land to William Gallaher, a local banker who develops senior living communities and single-family homes.
Gallaher's partner in the deal, Komron Shahhosseini, is a planning commissioner for Sonoma County—a relationship which may pose a conflict of interest, according to a Haas School of Business ethics expert who reviewed details of the deal.
Hundreds of Santa Rosans, including Nichols, have mobilized to stop the sale, objecting to its terms at public meetings, in letters to the editor and in a lawsuit that went to trial in Superior Court last Friday in front of Judge René Auguste Chouteau. The trial took three hours, and the judge is expected to rule within 30 days on whether the development deal can go forward.
In early July, Nichols and two members of the activist group Friends of Chanate took me on a walking tour. Since the 1870s, the Chanate property has been the dumping ground for the county's social and medical ills. It was originally the site of a work farm for low-income residents, then a public hospital complex. Now it's ragged and falling down.
In the cemetery where the county used to bury indigents rests Walter F. McCoy. His suicide in 1934 was headlined by the
Press Democrat, "Dying Man Slashes Throat to Avoid Entering Hospital Here," notes Nichols, who restored the graveyard.
We stroll past abandoned, rotting medical buildings that served the leprous, the insane and the penniless. As we skirt a plywood-sealed juvenile jail, a line from Bob Dylan floats by: "And the only sound that's left after the ambulances go / Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row."
There are some signs of human activity. There's a public health laboratory, a psychiatric clinic that processes the involuntarily committed. The unexpectedly dead of Santa Rosa await their autopsies, shelved in cardboard boxes inside an old boiler and laundry building repurposed as the city morgue.
We circumvent bottle-strewn homeless encampments. A pond stagnates, its outflow blocked by graffiti-swirled concrete. There is the tangy smell of nearby cannabis gardens.
For the Friends, Chanate is a historical treasure, a wildlife preserve, a public resource awaiting reassignment for social good. And for them that future is threatened by Gallaher, who they believe is being allowed to develop Chanate in violation of environmental regulations, open-meeting laws and on the cheap.
Last August, the Friends hired former State Sen. Noreen Evans of O'Brien Watters & Davis LLP to sue Sonoma County and Gallaher's Chanate Community Development Partners LLC. The arc of the case highlights the county's dire need for affordable housing, community-based healthcare services and, it must be said, smarter governance.
Gallaher proposes to construct up to 860 homes and apartment units with recreational facilities and a shopping center. The Friends of Chanate favor building fewer than 400 units and want to scale back any commercial development. They fear more activity will overwhelm traffic, water and educational infrastructures. And they are particularly concerned about traffic gridlock if future wildfires compel area residents to evacuate, as happened last fall.
Safety concerns aside, the Friends want Gallaher to pay market value for Chanate. They fear he will flip it to another developer for a quick profit. And they do not trust local officials to look after the public's interest. Our tour guide, Carol Vellutini, is not joking when she says she will lay down in front of the bulldozers should the lawsuit fail.
In 2014, Sonoma County supervisors closed down the heart of Chanate, its public hospital, which had last been upgraded in the 1970s. They said it cost too much to seismically retrofit. Despite pleas from scores of medical professionals to keep the facilities operational, the supervisors put Chanate up for sale as a housing development at a minimum price of $15 million.
A nationwide request for proposals required that 20 percent of the homes be affordable to families with very low incomes. It required the developer to demolish buildings. Because the land is inside city limits, its building permits and zoning and environmental authorizations, called entitlements, must be approved by Santa Rosa's council and planners.
Entitling a big development project is not a slam dunk, especially when there is substantial public resistance. Non-local developers were wary of becoming embroiled in a community slugfest. Two local builders found the moxie to push ahead.
Petaluma-based Curt Johansen spent $100,000 researching how to build 400 homes with sustainable bells and energy-saving whistles. He offered to pay whatever the fair market value of the land turned out to be after the entitlement process solidified development costs.
Sonoma County records show that only two supervisors perused Johansen's proposal before the board rejected it, mostly sight unseen. Johansen blames the slight on his lack of participation in local politics, noting that he has never made a campaign donation to a Sonoma County politician.
In February 2017, the county's real estate planners and lawyers began negotiating behind closed doors with the Gallaher-Shahhosseini partnership. The board of supervisors discussed the value of the project in closed sessions, the content of which remains secret.
Gallaher's proposal was championed by supervisor Shirlee Zane, who had appointed Shahhosseini to the planning commission in 2009. It is worth noting that Zane has received $63,000 in campaign contributions from Gallaher, who is a prolific funder of local politicians. Zane declined to comment for this story.