Story Corps

Placeholder Image photo credit: Courtesy of the Wildwood Foundation.

A longtime LGBT retreat center in the redwoods of rugged Cazadero is working to reopen after code violations forced its shut down four years ago.

Sonoma County supervisors voted Tuesday to rezone the Wildwood Retreat Center, and surrounding 200-plus acres on Old Cazadero Road as timberland production.

The designation would let the retreat center reopen, eventually welcoming up to 60 guests and ten employees year round.

According to the property's owners and the county, no timber harvest plan has been filed, and no logging will occur. 

Much of the property enjoyed large tax exemptions under a state law encouraging wildlife habitat, the Williamson Act program. According to the county, that became legally problematic after two separate lots---one with business activity, one forested–were combined.

Via this week’s vote, the habitat designation would be removed and the retreat center will be freed to undertake necessary construction needed to correct longstanding code violations.

Meanwhile, the area is considered at very high risk for wildfire. A point brought up by those against the center's reopening.

“That road is not intended for all this traffic. That property is not intended as a resort and it's dangerous,” said a speaker who identified himself as a neighbor of Wildwood since 2010. 

Wildwood is located at the current end of Old Cazadero Road, which remains severed by an unrepaired washout.

A handful of people asked county officials during public comment to vote against enabling Wildwood to reopen, but there were many more people who spoke in favor of Wildwood, telling personal stories of healing–from the land northwest of Guerneville and from the Wildwood community.

“Wildwood saved my life 10 years ago, when I moved here in Sonoma County and I found myself, alone. No friends, no family, no connections,” Nikolaos Pelekis said. “And I was lucky enough to by chance find Wildwood online and [it] became my refuge for that first year here in Sonoma County. And the people of Wildwood welcomed me there. They opened their arms for me and they made me feel like part of their family,”

“On the land there are the ashes of many gay men, and it's a very special place for us. And I hope we can keep it going,” Frank Salmari said. 

“I first visited Wildwood almost 20 years ago when I first moved to the Bay Area, and over the years I've attended multiple retreats at Wildwood, several of which were truly amazing,” said Marion McCall. “I'm grateful for the well-managed programs and the welcoming environment, the personal growth and the lasting friendships that I found [there].”

One Wildwood board member said financial support from the Wildwood community has been keeping the nonprofit from quote "disaster" since the county forced the retreat center to close its doors in 2019.

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