California Forever files proposed ballot initiative to allow expanded development

(Rendering courtesy of California Forever.)

A company that purchased tens of thousands of acres of farmland in Solano County in recent years with the intent of building a new population center has finally unveiled more details about the plan this week.

The company, California Forever, announced Wednesday it filed a formal proposal with the county registrar of voters for a November ballot initiative to change the county general plan, which restricts growth outside of existing cities. 

The proposal to allow development in an area currently zoned mostly for agricultural use refers to a mixed-use community called “New Community” that would initially be situated on 18,600 acres with the goal of attracting 50,000 residents before further expansion. [Learn more HERE.]

But the proposal did not win over critics, including a coalition of local residents, lawmakers and organizations that calls itself Solano Together, and state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, who released a statement expressing opposition to the proposal. 

Expansion would also be dependent on achieving 10 “voter guarantees” outlined in the initiative, including creating 15,000 jobs that pay more than the weekly county average. The company also proposed creating separate funds to support homebuyers in the new community and invest in other cities’ downtowns. 

Other major components of the initiative, dubbed “The East Solano Homes, Jobs, and Clean Energy Initiative,” include creating an expanded security zone around Travis Air Force Base and a 712-acre park on the western border of Rio Vista, as well as a series of potential infrastructure studies and changes, such as rerouting state Highway 12. 

The proposal offers the first details for what was announced in August as a broad plan to build a new community or city in the southeastern part of the county east of Travis Air Force Base, in between Suisun City and Rio Vista. The proposed initiative must receive 13,062 signatures from registered voters in the county to appear on the November ballot, 10 percent of the vote in the 2022 gubernatorial election. 

Map showing proposed area (in blue) of a community that would be built on 18,600 acres in Solano County if voters approve a ballot initiative from California Forever to allow development outside existing cities. (California Forever via Bay City News)

California Forever is the parent company of Flannery Associates LLC. The company drew criticism from local and federal lawmakers for its reluctance to disclose who was behind the company’s acquisition of over 50,000 acres of farmland since 2018 and for its legal tactics against farmers who rebuffed its attempts to buy their land. The company defended its years of secrecy as necessary to avoid a rush of land speculation, and said that its lawsuits were in response to property owners it accused of collusion. 

The community’s backers need voters to approve a change to the county’s general plan that currently guides growth and development “toward existing municipal areas.” The initiative changes that language to restrict development “toward existing cities and to the voter approved New Community.” 

Ultimately, the proposal calls for developing a community of between 100,000-400,000 people with as many as 160,000 dwellings and up to 90 million square feet of non-residential development. 

The 10 voter guarantees outlined in the 83-page initiative make promises to voters to achieve various residential, community and infrastructure goals that include creating solar and wind power sources to achieve environmental goals. 

The entrance to Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, Calif. The billionaire Silicon Valley investors behind California Forever propose a “land exchange” to build a new city near the air force base, contingent on voter approval. (Katy St. Clair/Bay City News)

The initiative would establish a $400 million fund for education scholarships and homebuying assistance within the new community and another $200 million to revitalize downtowns in other cities in the county. 

It proposes nearly doubling the size of the undeveloped defensive zone around Travis Air Force Base from about 8,000 acres to nearly 15,000 acres. 

Other assurances touch on habitat preservation, water conservation and the promise to fund the entire project with taxes raised within the new community and leave county funds untapped. 

Dodd in a statement from his office was critical of the company following the filing of the initiative. 

“They’ve certainly put plenty of money and time into their proposal but there are still huge, unresolved issues like traffic, and I’m not sold,” Dodd said. 

“If the measure qualifies, Solano County voters will get to weigh in on whether they think it’s a good idea. I hope decisions are based on facts, not slogans, misdirection and massive campaign spending. We shouldn’t gloss over very important public policy considerations that will have generational impacts,” Dodd said. 

Solano Together, whose supporters include the Solano County Farm Bureau and Fairfield Mayor Catherine Moy, said many of the promises had been made before by developers, particularly claims of job creation. 

“Nearby cities are often in direct competition for companies and services that do want to locate in an area,” a statement from Solano Together said.

“Vallejo, Fairfield and Vacaville have all invested significant resources in attracting new jobs to their community. Flannery’s incentives to lure those jobs away from the population centers of the county to this new development will only harm our communities and reduce opportunities for existing residents.” 

The company, whose founders include its CEO Jan Sramek, a former Goldman Sachs trader, has focused on a vision for a walkable community that would create more housing in the county. 

“None of this is going to be easy, but we believe that with the right design and business strategy, it’s possible,” a statement from the company said. 

If voters approve the initiative, California Forever proposed conducting an environmental impact report and creating a development plan in 2025 and 2026. 

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