“Less is more,” German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said, sometime around the turn of the twentieth century.

Mies, founder of a group of 1930s designers called simply Der Ring (very Tolkien), created elegant, modernist structures that were despised and often destroyed by the National Socialist party.

He also may have said, “God is in the details.” We’ve heard the opposite as well: “The devil’s in the details,” a sentiment that appealed to Nietzsche. Whoever’s in the details, there’s apparently a higher (or lower) power inherent in them.

Stunning, because details live everywhere. Even the simplest of the Mies creations, for instance—the concrete slab or the bare patio—teems with angles, specs, pounds-per-square-inch. Details abound.

So why should we be surprised when an abounding, out-of-control detail sneaks up from one of these everywhere places and bites us in the behind?

As Linus might say, “I don’t know, Charlie Brown.” But they do bite.

Learn more about the Charlie Brown connection on September 10 at Readers’ Books, Sonoma

I’m thinking today of the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) revitalization project in Glen Ellen, California. I wrote about SDC in a May 2022 op-ed for Writers on the Range, “A Water-Stressed Valley Needs to Curb Development.”

In my drought- and fire-plagued home valley, 40 miles north of San Francisco, a debate has been simmering for decades over a massive development planned on state-owned property . . . at the [former] Sonoma Developmental Center, California’s oldest hospital for the “feeble-minded.”    

What remains on the land are decaying historic buildings, an active fire department, a popular network of footpaths through oak and redwood forests, and the valley’s only two municipal drinking-water reservoirs.   

Now the state, working with Sonoma County’s planning staff, proposes to transform the former Center into a “vibrant, mixed-use community.” Its retail shops, offices, and some 900 new housing units would augment the valley’s wineries, tourism, manufacturing, and small businesses.

But in a time and place of growing aridity, the proposal reads like a pipe dream . . . 

Water is in short supply. The valley’s 44,000-acre groundwater basin and recycled water provide only half of the community’s water. Piped-in supplies make up the other half, shipped from increasingly drought-stressed river basins farther north.

Writers on the Range, May 23, 2022

At the time of the column, several community groups were working with Sonoma County supervisors to reduce the number of units by about half, which many considered a sustainable number. (Although plenty of folks want the mountain to be left alone. NIMBY? Perhaps not so much as calling out an “infill” wolf-project in “affordable housing” sheep’s-clothing.)

Then, just last week, the Sonoma Index Tribune ran an article (behind their paywall) with this headline: Sonoma County ‘blindsided’ as SDC developer seeks to add hundreds more housing units: “The plans advanced last year by supervisors envisioned just over 600 housing units on the Glen Ellen campus. The latest one from the developer calls for 930.”

A sale was to have occurred in spring 2023 (terms not disclosed), with the prospective buyer/developer bound to the specs of a county permit. But already the would-be buyer wants to change the game. Sonoma County is said to be “blindsided,” but I’m not clear why.

Because development: it’s free enterprise. It often expands its visions to pencil out. It makes America great, right?

Great, except for the god-dang, devilish details. Here are a few:

One: loss of diverse natural habitat is going on everywhere in Sonoma County, creating a huge need to conserve gems like the unusually intact SDC.

Two: everyone’s pointing to our need to build more fair-priced housing, but building isn’t the only answer. Changing use permits has affected housing availability and neighborhood fabric over the last few decades such that, today, vacation rentals make up more than 40 percent of existing homes in some of the valley’s more-affordable neighborhoods. (Meaning that close to half of hoods where families lived and raised their kids and made friends and supported local schools are owned, for fun or profit, by already-housed individuals.) Which has eliminated opportunity in already-infilled areas.

Three: whether 600 or 900 new units, the valley doesn’t have the water to add another population center to Sonoma Valley. Project proponents point to the upgrade of an older, existing system on the property, but that system is surface-water fed. Read: it is rainfall and spring-regeneration dependent in a valley with declining precipitation. Sonomans usually turn to “the pipe” (fed by those northern rivers) or groundwater for supplement. And, like most of the rest of the semi-united states, we’re overdrawn.

Such details, details. God and the devil, both, live in the details. These particular details suggest that not until we get serious—really, truly, don’t-suck-up-vital-groundwater serious—about how we use both the housing we have and the water we don’t, should a new town be dropped mid valley here.

In Mies’s world, less is more. The detailed if simple designs. The natural light and air.

In beautiful California, less could mean leaving the last, forested swath of wildlife habitat intact in a 44,000-acre groundwater basin. It could mean allowing more-than-human beings to thrive here. It could mean putting the health of the watershed first—critical to our health, too. Or requiring investors to convert those dreaded-by-locals vacation rentals to longer-term rentals that residents can occupy.

More could mean a temporary fix that’s devastating in terms of water and fire risk, evacuation impacts in an already congested road system, and irreversible losses of biota. Much that residents and visitors alike love about the valley would be gone in an instant. And nothing will stop investors—good people, God and the devil bless them—from snapping up a good bit of the “market-rate” new housing at SDC.

Less, on the other hand, will allow us all time to find a thoughtful, more beautiful solution.

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Like “More”? Find my 2023 International Rubery Book Prize shortlisted What I Never Told You: Stories (Wavegirl, 2022). And discover more short pieces here.

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