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Silicon Valley billionaires' Solano County utopia: Prominent conservation group urges opposition

Ethan Baron, The Mercury News on

Published in Home and Consumer News

A prominent conservation group on Thursday came out against a plan backed by Silicon Valley billionaires for a new, utopian city the size of Vallejo in Solano County, California.

The Solano Land Trust, which has close ties to Bay Area environmental groups and works with state agencies including the Coastal Conservancy and the Department of Fish and Wildlife, is urging county residents to vote no on the city-from-scratch project in November when it is to appear as a ballot initiative to rezone 17,500 acres of agricultural land.

“A development of this magnitude will have a detrimental impact on Solano County’s water resources, air quality, traffic, farmland, and natural environment,” the Land Trust said in a news release. “The associated pollution will be harmful to both our community and environmental health.”

The project, California Forever, was birthed in 2017, led by former Wall Street trader Jan Sramek. It gained financial backing from billionaire venture capitalists Marc Andreessen and Michael Moritz, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and businesswoman Laurene Powell Jobs. Through its real estate arm Flannery Associates, California Forever spent five years secretly buying tens of thousands of acres of ranch land before abruptly sparking an angry uproar among Solano County’s citizenry by filing a $510 million lawsuit against holdout landowners they accused of conspiring, through “endless greed,” to overcharge them.

The plan, suddenly in a spotlight, soon became mired in a broader controversy, with doubts and pointed questions coming from local and state officials all the way up to members of the U.S. Congress. Farmers opposed to the project say it would destroy important agricultural production and a way of life that goes back through generations of ranching families.

In April, California Forever, which has spent more than $800 million buying more than 60,000 acres, said it had gathered and submitted to county authorities more than 20,000 signatures, far beyond the 13,000 valid signatures it needs to make the November ballot. Solano County officials say they will determine by Monday whether the proponents have enough signatures.

California Forever, which has put out marketing materials showing Mediterranean-style communities it says should provide homes for 50,000 people by late in the 2030s, is also promising 15,000 local jobs paying more than $88,000 a year, plus $200 million for revitalizing downtowns in the county, and down-payment assistance for buyers.

In response to the Land Trust’s new opposition to the project, California Forever said in a statement Thursday that it is keeping its plan to 17,500 acres, safely away from sensitive environments including the San Francisco Bay Delta and Suisun Marsh.


“We are proposing a compact, sustainable community where there is no ecological habitat, on poor soils, with low fire risk, according to official state and county maps,” California Forever said. “Due to poor soils, the entire 17,500 acres produces only $6 million worth of agricultural production a year — only 1.6% of Solano County’s total of $385 million.”

Until this week, the Land Trust deliberately avoided weighing in on whether the project should go ahead. But tensions were brewing. Late last year, Sramek and his wife donated $20,000 to the trust, and California Forever announced the funding at a town hall meeting and on its website, describing the money as a grant. Land trust executive director Nicole Braddock disputed in a message to her organization’s mailing list that the money was a grant — which could suggest the trust supported the project — and gave back the money. That spawned a response from Sramek, posted to Facebook by California Forever, accusing Braddock of defaming him, his wife and California Forever.

Even in the wake of that rancorous public spat, Braddock told this news organization in January that “the land trust hasn’t taken a position on the project.”

Braddock said Thursday in a phone interview that the decision to oppose the project came after careful analysis, and weighing the proposal against the trust’s mission to protect land and water for future generations.

“The public is very concerned about water,” Braddock said, noting that Solano County officials have said a new state water plan could significantly cut the county’s water supply during drought years. “The community is really concerned about traffic and the associated pollution. The community is concerned about people coming in with a lot of money from outside of our community to buy land and decide how we should develop.”

Braddock also objected to California Forever’s characterization of the development area as low-value land, as it provides wildlife habitat, helps recharge aquifers and hosts low-impact agriculture. “We’re growing food out there using only rainwater,” Braddock said.

California Forever said its project has already attracted commitments from employers and will also include building California’s biggest solar farm. Its proposed ballot initiative, the company said, provides an opportunity to “lift up our collective communities from Vallejo to Dixon and Fairfield to Rio Vista.”

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