Stephen Golub: California For Suckers?

Benicia resident and author Stephen Golub

By Stephen Golub, originally published in the Benicia Herald on March 24, 2024

California Forever, also known as the East Solano Homes, Jobs, and Clean Energy Initiative, is an effort, sponsored largely by uber-rich Silicon Valley types, to build a supposedly model city or cities (of up to 400,000 people) on the large swaths of East Solano County land they secretly purchased at great expense in recent years. It currently is utilizing apparently professional signature gatherers outside retail establishments (such as Raley’s). The goal is to gather enough signatures to place on the November ballot a referendum approving zoning and other changes.

According to its website, “This voter initiative is proposing to build a new community that brings 15,000 local jobs paying over $88,000/year, $500 million in community benefits for downpayment assistance, scholarships, and small business grants for Solano residents, and a $200 million commitment to invest in revitalizing downtowns in existing Solano cities.’

But beware of Silicon Valley billionaires bearing would-be gifts.

To start with, California Forever promotes ten “guarantees” that will improve life in Solano County in myriad ways.

But when is a guarantee like this not really a guarantee? When it’s promised as part of this ballot initiative. As explained at the website of Solano Together, a group of concerned County residents, officials and organizations challenging the project:

“While the measure identifies ‘ten voter guarantees’ that the project proponents have promised to provide once residential and commercial development begins, county counsel clarifies that ‘rights to develop the New Community and obligations for voter guarantees would not vest until a Development Agreement is executed between the project applicant and the County’ (4).

A map of where California Forever plans on putting its new city in Solano County, right between Travis Air Force Base and Rio Vista. | California Forever / Handout via SFGate.

“Without any mechanism to hold California Forever accountable, these ‘guarantees’ are largely empty promises until a Development Agreement is in place. Under California law, a ballot measure cannot legally obligate the County to agree to specific provisions in a Development Agreement, which must be negotiated independently between the developer and the local governing body (5). The title and summary further detail that any community benefits negotiated through a Development Agreement would only be binding if the new city remained unincorporated (6). If California Forever chose to incorporate as a city, all of those benefits could disappear (7).”

In other words, the guarantees are not guaranteed.

For these and many other reasons explained at the excellent Solano Together site, numerous officials are voicing opposition to the project. They include State Senator Bill Dodd, as well as  Congressmen John Garamendi and Mike Thompson, Fairfield Mayor Catherine Moy and Suisun City Mayor Pro Tem Princess Washington.

What’s more, consider the coalition of groups that are coming together in support of Solano Together and against California Forever. They range from the Sierra Club to the Solano County Republicans. When’s the last time such organizations gathered under a common banner?

My own reasons for doubting California Forever and its backers spring partly from the nature of the opposition and the arguments against the initiative.

But to be frank, there’s a far more fundamental factor at play: I just don’t trust them.

Beyond reading about the initiative, I’ve attended two public forums at which its leaders and supporters spoke. The first, organized by California Forever itself in Benicia in December, featured a series of statements that struck me as arrogant, ignorant or both. The capper was a claim by the initiative’s top organizer: something along the lines that high water usage problems generated by the project would be alleviated by ending almond exports to China.

Then, earlier this month, I joined about 100 other concerned citizens in a Zoom meeting organized by the Progressive Democrats of Benicia, to hear presentations from California Forever’s Head of Planning, another person supportive of the initiative and two persons affiliated with Solano Together. Again, there were California Forever claims that couldn’t be substantiated. They included promises of tremendous job generation, assumptions of “abundance” and, to my mind,  what sounded like a Field of Dreams “Build it and they will come” assertion.

The excellent Solano Together representatives, especially Benicia’s own Bob Berman (who also chairs the Solano County Orderly Growth Committee), politely poured cold water on some of the claims. For instance, what might seem like affordable housing in Silicon Valley – say, starting at $1 million – is beyond the reach of most Solano County residents. It was also noted that similar efforts to start new cities from scratch elsewhere have not fared very well.

By the way, the preferable economic and environmental alternative to the “Build it and they will come” mindset is to work with the County’s current cities, as the Orderly Growth Committee and the County’s General Plan favor, to improve what we have.

There are questions about the initiative’s signature-gathering practices. Passing by local supermarkets recently, I heard gatherers claiming that the initiative was to increase low-income and affordable housing, without reference to the overall project itself. And as reported by various outlets, California Forever representatives are being accused of misleading voters with these petitions. The  Solano County Registrar of Voters reports that it “has received multiple reports of voters being misinformed by circulators collecting signatures either with incorrect information or for a [nonexistent] petition to stop the East Solano Homes, Jobs and Clean Energy Initiative.”

The biggest question, though, involves what the California Forever backers are really after. Is it actually all about a perhaps naïve long-term dream to build a model city  or establish a new Silicon Valley in Solano? Or might it be about something much more mercenary and short-term: Get the ballot measure passed; this will change zoning to permit residential development on the California Forever land; then turn around and sell that far more valuable land (by virtue of the zoning change) to developers who’d have no interest in sticking to California Forever’s supposed guarantees?

If that’s the case, we might as well call it California For Suckers.