Billionaire-backed plan to erect a model California city qualifies for the ballot


The billionaire proponents of a brand-new city that would rise from the rolling prairie northeast of the San Francisco Bay cleared their first big hurdle Tuesday, when the Solano County Registrar of Voters certified the group had enough signatures to put its proposal before local voters in November.

The group backing the measure, called California Forever, must now convince voters to get behind the audacious idea of erecting a walkable and environmentally friendly community with tens of thousands of homes, along with a sports center, parks, bike lanes, open space and a giant solar farm on what is now pastureland.

Led by entrepreneur Jan Sramek, a former Goldman Sachs trader, the venture is backed by a sparkling roster of tech titans, including LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman; venture capitalist Marc Andreessen; and Patrick and John Collison, who founded the payment processing company Stripe.

In an interview Tuesday, Sramek said the question before Solano County voters is nothing less than “a referendum on what do we want the future of California to be.”

The state, he said, was once a great place “that built all these incredible things, bridges, water infrastructure, great public works, and now it is this oasis for the rich, or people who bought houses when they were cheap and they get to live here.”

Amid a critical lack of affordable housing, he said, his proposed new city offers a way “out of this defeatist-build-nothing-argue-about-everything mode.”

But the proposal faces opposition from some local leaders, along with environmental groups concerned about the loss of natural habitat. Project opponents said a recent poll they conducted found that 70% of the people surveyed were skeptical.

“There’s a litany of reasons” to oppose the project, said former Solano County Supervisor Duane Kromm, who has pushed for growth limits in the county and heads the group that funded the poll. Among the reasons, he said, is the county’s longtime commitment to keeping development confined to existing cities, along with what he said is a lack of transparency by project proponents.

Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) went so far as to publish an op-ed against the project in the local newspaper, writing: “I strongly support efforts to increase the number of good-paying jobs, implement clean energy, and provide opportunity for our region. But these efforts require sound public policy that works with our community, not lavish promises that may never be realized.”

Some of the opposition stems from California Forever’s rocky introduction to the local political scene: The effort, launched under a cloak of secrecy, became ensnared in controversy last year amid unfounded speculation that the land buyers were foreign agents intent on espionage.

That’s because for years before proponents revealed their plans, they used a limited liability company called Flannery Associates to buy up land from farmers in a vast swath of the county, stretching from Rio Vista in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta west toward Travis Air Force Base, without telling anyone why. News of the mysterious land sales, in an area so close to a crucial military installation, led some people, including government officials, to speculate it might be part of an effort by foreign spies to gain military secrets.

Last year, it was revealed instead as a bold plan to build a new city from the ground up and reinvent how housing is built in California.

In January, Sramek unveiled blueprints of the new community and announced his group would begin a signature-gathering campaign to put a measure before county voters to amend zoning regulations. His group spent $2 million on those efforts from January to March. The group also began rolling out a list of benefits voters could expect from the new community.

Among them: a pledge to create at least 15,000 jobs; $500 million to assist with down payments for housing, scholarships and other benefits for residents; $200 million to revitalize the downtown core of Solano County communities such as Rio Vista, Benicia and Dixon; and commitments to preserve open space, create walkable neighborhoods and improve traffic flow on nearby roadways.

On May 12, California Forever announced it was in conversations with 12 employers interested in expanding into the county. On May 21, the group said it had given out $500,000 in grants to local organizations. And on June 4, the group promised to build a regional youth sports complex so children wouldn’t have to travel as often to San Francisco or Sacramento for club sports.

Sramek has moved with his family and their golden retriever to the Solano County town of Fairfield. He said Tuesday he feels welcomed in his new community and professed to love the heat — even on a day when the temperature topped 100 degrees.

He said he believes voters can be persuaded that his project could help solve the state’s housing crisis and improve the county’s economic standing. People have been “disappointed by developers before,” he said. But he said his group is “really serious” about keeping its promises.

Some elected officials say they are listening.

Ron Kott, the mayor of Rio Vista, a city of about 10,000 that is adjacent to the property California Forever wants to develop, said he sees “a lot of advantages.” Among them, he said, it could enhance his town’s retail scene and possibly bring a much-needed healthcare clinic.

“I need more business,” he said. “I need more sales tax revenue. I need essential services.”



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