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California Forever Unveils Ballot Measure Plans for Its New City

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Jan Sramek, CEO of California Forever, speaks during a town hall meeting in Rio Vista on Dec. 5, 2023, for the proposed California city backed by Silicon Valley investors on farmland in eastern Solano County. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

View the full episode transcript.

California Forever, the billionaire-funded company behind the controversial plan to build a new city from scratch in Solano County, has released language for a ballot measure they hope to bring before voters. KQED’s Erin Baldassari tells us what’s in the plan, and how residents are feeling about it. 


Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra, and welcome to the Bay. Local news to keep you rooted. So if the billionaire investors behind the group California for ever really want to build a new city from scratch in Solano County, they’re going to need permission from voters first. After years of buying up land in the county in secret California for ever released language for a ballot measure that they want to take to voters this November, with hopes of getting their blessing to build a new utopia on undeveloped farmland.

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Jan Sramek: It’s no different than a company doing, research and development to design a new gadget or a new car. And then you come out and you announce, this is the project. And, that’s exactly what we’ve done.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Today, what Solano County could be voting on and what California Forever is offering in return. Well, Aaron, I’m wondering if you could just first tell me about this press conference that you went to this week. Where was it and what was the mood like?

Erin Baldassari: It was in the Veterans Memorial Building in Rio Vista.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Erin Baldassari is senior editor of KQED housing affordability desk.

Erin Baldassari: You know, there was a lot of reporters and TV cameras there. Obviously.

Jan Sramek: Today is a day that, many of us have been looking for, looking forward for a long time.

Erin Baldassari: But also some local elected officials, members of the Community advisory board and other members of the public who were generally supportive of California Forever’s plan. And those were the people who were invited inside to try to. And I think there was probably maybe a couple dozen people outside who had wanted to hear more about what California Forever was proposing.

Erin Baldassari: There was a number of people who maybe had more questions about the plan. Some people were holding signs saying things like save our farmlands, but they were not allowed in for this meeting. And why? Rio Vista Rio Vista was a really intentional choice. You know, it will be one of the most impacted by this new development. It is, you know, directly adjacent to the proposed new community.

Erin Baldassari: Driving through, I saw farmhouses and livestock and wind farms and croplands, and it’s got this small but kind of quaint downtown with neon signs and, you know, painted facades that has, you know, it’s very reminiscent of, like, small town, 1950s vibes. And originally the meeting was supposed to happen in the old movie theater in Rio Vista, but at the last minute they moved it to the Veterans Memorial Building, I think, just to accommodate more people.

Jan Sramek: I do want to talk about the venue that we want it to be initially, because I think it’s a microcosm of what we hope to achieve here in Solano County.

Erin Baldassari: And Jan Sramek, the CEO of California Forever, said he really wanted to unveil their proposal at that movie theater because to him, you know, it represents a new chapter for towns in Solano County like Rio Vista, that haven’t shared in that urban growth and development and and also economic investment that the rest of the Bay area has had.

Jan Sramek: We believe that, we can have a very special relationship with Rio Vista, and bring some of the things that the community needs, whilst at the same time allowing Rio Vista to keep its small town character and the identity that makes those special.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: So the purpose of this press conference was to unveil more details about this brand new city that California forever wants to build. But of course, they need the okay from Solano County voters first. Can you remind us, what do they need voters permission to do exactly?

Erin Baldassari: So Solano County, like a lot of more, rural or agricultural counties in the state, has an orderly growth ordinance. So basically these were ordinance passed in the 1970s and 80s that limited development to within city boundaries. Environmentalists at the time wanted to combat sprawl. There was a housing crunch then, as now, and so developers were eyeing orchards and farms and other open spaces to put new tract housing. So that’s where these orderly growth ordinances come in.

Erin Baldassari: And so basically it says that if you want to build outside of these existing cities, you need a vote of the people to do that first. Now, I think it’s worth noting that there was another attempt to do something similar to what California Forever is proposing, albeit on a smaller scale, in the 80s in Solano County. Back then, a San Francisco developer, Hiram Wu, wanted to turn nearly 900 acres of pasture land into a new town with about 6000 residents. But voters at the time did not go with that plan. They turned it down.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: So what are voters going to be asked to decide exactly in November?

Erin Baldassari: It’s actually kind of a lot. The initiative that California Forever put forward is 83 pages long.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Oh my goodness.

Erin Baldassari: Yeah. It’s a lot to digest. They’re going to be asked to agree to changes to the county’s general plan, as well as what’s called a specific plan, which is basically rezoning the land as well as open space requirements and community benefits.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Okay. So they’re asking voters for basically permission to build this new city. How many people are going to live in this new community they want to build in? And what is the idea exactly again?

Erin Baldassari: California Forever wants to transform what is now around 60,000 acres of farmland into a new city, with as many as 400,000 people over the next half century. So they’re envisioning this as a medium density community. That means a lot of rowhouses and apartment buildings. They want to have lots of bike lanes. They want their own rapid bus system and parks of various sizes, and they want all the neighborhoods to be mixed use so they can have shops and restaurants and offices mixed in with housing.

Erin Baldassari: And while they’re contemplating that this community will grow over many decades to, as I said, around 400,000 people, the critical number to think about is 50,000. And that’s sort of the medium term number of residents that developers are contemplating. And that’s also tied to a lot of the community benefits that they’re promising.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Right. Tell us a little bit more about what California Forever is offering to do in order to kind of convince voters to make this happen?

Erin Baldassari: California Forever is saying that they will pay $500 million in community benefits for every 50,000 residents that the new city adds, so that community benefits package includes $400 million in down payment assistance and affordable housing funds. There’s $70 million in grants for college tuition or vocational training, or to start a new business. And there’s 30 million for parks and ecological habitat.

Erin Baldassari: Every time the new city adds another 50,000 residents, they will put in another $500 million into those community benefits funds. And then a second fund called Solano Downtowns, would contribute 200 million in for profit investments for every 50,000 new residents. Again, scaling up as the community scales up. And that would support, you know, designed to sort of revitalize the downtowns in existing Solano County cities. They’re also saying that they will pay for all of the infrastructure in this new community.

Erin Baldassari: So that’s things like waterlines and roads that normally the county or, you know, another municipality would pay for. So they’re saying that taxpayers who reside outside of this new community will not have to pay for these traditional county funded services or infrastructure.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: It seems like some of what is being offered is sort of intended to respond to some of the criticism. I mean, like this idea of promising money to help already existing cities in Solano County and in saying it won’t become a bedroom community. I mean, I feel like that’s sort of a criticism, that came up during some of the town halls.

Erin Baldassari: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I think they really wanted to tout the fact that they are listening and that they are trying to incorporate feedback from existing Solano County residents.

Patrice Lewis: I see this project as something that can definitely help interconnect the county as a whole and bring the county up as a whole.

Erin Baldassari: And I spoke with a community advisory board member, Patrice Lewis, who said that she was really heartened to see that it did seem like they were incorporating that input.

Patrice Lewis: Instead of looking at kind of the negatives of what went on in other kind of tech related regions of our state. We can actually do it the right way and have that community input that we actually need.

Erin Baldassari: And one of the big things that they are saying that they’re going to do is a promise to limit growth to 50,000 residents. If the new city doesn’t produce good paying jobs. So they’re saying they want to produce at least 15,000 jobs that pay 125% of the county’s average weekly salary.

Erin Baldassari: And if they don’t do that, they will stop adding new residents. And that was a direct outcome of this community input process. And as you said, this desire that this new community doesn’t become a bedroom community, that it has local jobs that folks can, can go to and and not have to crowd the existing highways into the Bay area.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Coming up, we’ll hear from Rio Vista residents about what they think about California Forever’s offer and what Solano County voters can expect ahead of the November election.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: What is your sense of how people are responding so far now that California Forever has had a few town halls, and then also has really revealed more about what it plans to do and how it plans to do it?

Erin Baldassari: Yeah. You know, I mean, I think it’s just a mix, right? First off, for a long time people did not know who these people were. And and so I think there’s just this fear and suspicion that, you know, they had been operating in the shadows for so long, and now they’re coming out with these grand promises. And that’s just a big hurdle to overcome for a lot of people. There’s a lot of concerns about water and infrastructure.

Erin Baldassari: A lot of folks out in Solano County have a really grueling commute into Oakland and San Francisco and other parts of the Bay area, and highway 80 is already really congested. These smaller highways that folks are commuting on are also really crowded. So adding more people, even if some of them will work locally, is definitely a concern.

Bill Mortimore: I’m skeptical, but they barred me from coming in. So how do I make a decision?

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: One guy that I talked to outside of the meeting on Wednesday, Bill Mortimore, is a longtime Rio Vista resident, and I think for him, it’s just it’s just such an incredible large project that it’s hard for him to even wrap his mind around it. Pie in the Sky is how he described it.

Bill Mortimore: Talk to other developers and look at their projects and what they build to turn a profit. And you’ll see what reality is. The difference between conceptual and reality is a whole different ballgame.

Erin Baldassari: The folks who spoke during the meeting were. All from outside of Rio Vista. And I think that was a huge frustration for the folks in Rio Vista who saw that this meeting was happening. Maybe assume that it was open to the public, because there have been a lot of town hall meetings and and opportunities for folks to to weigh in and give input, and were frustrated that they were ultimately barred from coming in.

Erin Baldassari: You know, so I think things like that also do not engender trust. But, you know, on the other hand, the housing crisis is real, and there’s a lot of people who really want housing, who want housing that’s more affordable. And if you know, California forever is seeing that they can provide that. I mean, I think folks are at least open to the idea.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And what about local leaders in Solano County, Erin? What’s your sense of how they’re feeling? Because I know they’re among some of the more skeptical, given so many of them had been trying for years to figure out who was behind buying up all this land in Solano County. So what’s your sense now?

Erin Baldassari: I talked to one city council member in Rio Vista, Sarah Donnelly who was actually at the Veterans Memorial Building on Wednesday. She first off won’t take a position for or against the plan.

Sarah Donnelly: Well, I’m just going to start with again. Our legal counsel has told us that we should not take a position for or against. So but I think we can still be skeptical. And I think the voters should be skeptical.

Erin Baldassari: And I think some of that skepticism comes from a lot of the big promises that California Forever is making and questions about, you know, what happens if there’s a recession, what happens if inflation goes crazy? Again? What if there are unintended consequences from this development that they hadn’t yet anticipated? But someone like her in Rio Vista will have to deal with once those problems creep up.

Sarah Donnelly: This is ground zero. This is where they’re the most impact will happen right up against us, and we have the fewer fewest votes.

Erin Baldassari: But on a more human level, you know, Rio Vista is a really small community. And I get the sense that it’s really tight knit. And so, you know, part of her skepticism comes from some of California forevers past actions, including suing some people in Solano County and folks who haven’t agreed to sell their land yet, who they allege were price fixing. You know, she’s looking at that behavior and and seeing it as maybe not the most, friendly or collaborative.

Sarah Donnelly: I’m skeptical about them guaranteeing anything when they’re doing what you’ve already heard of, you know, suing our friends and neighbors, to try to get their way in a situation.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Do we know now, Erin, whether this is going to be on the ballot in November?

Erin Baldassari: It’s not a guarantee. First, they have to gather, a requisite number of signatures. I think it’s somewhere in the range of 13 to 14,000 from across the county. Those have to be verified. And then the Board of Supervisors votes to put it onto the ballot. So there’s still a number of steps. It seems unlikely that it would not be on the ballot.

Jan Sramek; And a lot of the people who have been excited about this or who’ve been open minded about it. Are going to come out and they’re going to tell their neighbors, hey, I believe in this…

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Jan Sramek, the CEO of California Forever said, you know, they were willing to spend as much money as it takes to win this ballot measure in November. So I think we’re going to see some really aggressive campaigning between now and then.

Jan Sramek: I’m going to make this happen no matter what.

Erin Baldassari: They’ll have more town hall meetings, people doing outreach, and I’m sure we’ll begin to see lots of ads and, mailers and all the traditional, tools of election campaigns.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Yeah, I am actually already seeing those, so. Oh, well, yeah, I’m sure they’re just going to, gearing up from here. Do we have a sense yet of Solano County voters willingness to approve something like this?

Erin Baldassari: I don’t know. I think some people already made up their mind about how they feel about California forever. And some people, I think, who are already open to the idea, might look at these community benefits and say, oh, you know, I see something for myself in here. I see scholarships and, you know, help with starting new businesses, money for open space. I mean, I think all of that is really appealing to folks, and obviously people really want housing. So, we’ll see as we get closer to November, in the last several election cycles, going back to 2016, voters in the Bay area have pretty strongly supported housing measures.

Erin Baldassari: So funding for affordable housing, measures to approve, affordable housing developments. But voters in Solano County have been less willing to support those measures than other Bay area counties. And so I think one thing that’ll be really interesting to see is whether this sort of historical resistance will continue in Solano County, or if this desire to have more housing and more affordable housing will win over.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Erin, thank you so much for talking with me, I appreciate it.

Erin Baldassari: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having me.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: That was Erin Baldassari, senior editor of KQED’s housing affordability desk. This 30 minute conversation with Erin was cut down and edited by producer Maria Esquinca, and Alan Montecillo is our senior editor. He scored this episode and added all the tape. Music courtesy of NPR, First Call Music and the Audio Network.

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Ericka Cruz Guevarra: The rest of our podcast team here at KQED includes Jen Chien, our director of podcasts, Katie Sprenger, our podcast operations manager, Cesar Saldana, our podcast engagement producer and Maha Sanad, our podcast Engagement Intern. The Bay is a production of member supported KQED in San Francisco. I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra. Thanks so much for listening. Talk to you next time.

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