[Note from BenIndy: This comprehensive post by CalMatters offers a detailed and exquisitely rendered analysis of the many promises and pledges California Forever has made in its campaign to build a new city in Solano County via a 100-page ballot initiative. Because CalMatters is a free publication (no paywall), and because some of the elements in this article are interactive, we highly recommend you start reading this post here but finish over at the CalMatters website. Links are available below. California Forever has made many, many promises about jobs, housing, transit and more to lure Solano County residents into signing the petition that could land this initiative on the ballot, but how much of what they are pledging is actually achievable, legally and practically speaking? This is a must-read.]
CalMatters, by Levi Sumagaysay and Ben Christopher, February 22, 2024
IN SUMMARY: California Forever CEO Jan Sramek says promises of new homes, jobs, investments are binding, but legal experts and elected officials are skeptical.
The city-from-scratch that tech billionaires want to build in Solano County is getting the hard sell, with the backers promising new housing, better jobs and more — promises that will cost in the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars — plus a pledge that county taxpayers outside the new community won’t have to pay for any of it.
The backers call these pledges, contained in a proposed countywide ballot initiative, “guarantees.” They say they’ll be legally bound to honor them.
But skeptical legal experts and local officials dispute the idea that the project’s developers will be obligated by law to deliver on the so-called guarantees. Because the issues would put California in uncharted territory, odds are some potential disputes would have to be resolved in court.
The Silicon Valley tech billionaires aim to put a nearly 100-page ballot initiative before county voters in November. The group has formed a company called California Forever — whose subsidiary Flannery Associates has spent $900 million to buy 62,000 acres of farmland (about the size of Sacramento) in the area since 2017 — that proposes to build on 17,500 acres of that land (about the size of Vacaville). They plan for the new community to attract an initial 50,000 residents, and eventually up to 400,000, which would double the population of the county.
The company is backed by a group of venture capitalists — including Michael Moritz, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen and Emerson Collective founder Laurene Powell Jobs — to create this new town. They promise, through California Forever and its chief executive, Jan Sramek, to spend a lot more money to build and develop the community. They say it will alleviate the state’s housing crisis, create well-paying jobs and build a walkable community on the outskirts of the Bay Area.
Although the project’s promoters insist Solano County residents outside the proposed community won’t get stuck with any new taxes or fiscal responsibilities, they acknowledge the state of California will. And those state taxpayers, of course, also include all of Solano County’s taxpayers.
“The goal is to be the master developer of this and be a real steward of the land,” Sramek said in an interview with CalMatters last week. He added that the investors in the project are in it for the next few decades at least.
Despite taking part in some contentious town-halls and other public meetings, and suing county farmers they accuse of price-fixing, Sramek and California Forever are courting voters with wide-ranging “guarantees.”
Those promises — whose dollar amounts will gradually increase with the community’s population, reaching the pledged totals at 50,000 residents — include:
- Up to $400 million in down-payment assistance to help Solano County residents buy homes in the new community and new affordable housing
- Up to $200 million invested into the county’s existing downtowns
- Up to $70 million for college, training and educational programs for Solano County residents
- Thousands of new jobs that will pay 125% of the average annual income in the county
- An unknown sum for infrastructure for the new community, such as schools, a transportation system and more
“They can promise they can do a thing,” said Mary-Beth Moylan, a University of the Pacific law professor and expert on California initiatives, who said the promises are not legally binding. “But when you get into things like commitment of taxpayer money, that’s not something they can guarantee.”
Solano County Supervisor Erin Hannigan represents Vallejo, and while she’s not necessarily against the project, she agreed with Moylan. “I think (the promises promoters call guarantees) will falsely entice people to think this is a good thing” when she said there is not enough information for voters to make an informed decision. “Who’s going to enforce it? You can’t put a directive on a municipality.”
Sramek pointed to initiative language that says the community would not be able to begin development without an environmental impact report, and without reaching a development agreement with the county that would incorporate enforcement of the so-called guarantees.
California law does not allow for statutory development agreements to be passed by initiative, per a 2018 appellate court ruling. This proposed initiative refers to a development agreement that is supposed to include many of California Forever’s promises, but the company will still have to iron out details with the county.
California Forever’s backers have up to 180 days to collect 13,062 signatures after they publish the final initiative title and summary in the legals section of print newspapers in the area, said John Gardner, assistant country registrar. The company can’t do that until it gets the initiative title and summary back from the registrar after submitting a revised version of the initiative Feb. 14; the registrar is waiting on county counsel to rewrite the initiative title and summary before passing that back to California Forever. For the initiative to qualify for the November ballot, all other subsequent steps, including validation of the signatures by the registrar and a final approval by the Board of Supervisors, must be completed by Aug. 8, Gardner said.
Ahead of signature-gathering for the East Solano Homes, Jobs, and Clean Energy Initiative — which asks voters to rezone farmland and amend the county’s urban-growth-restricting General Plan — here’s a breakdown of the “guarantees” and a look at a key sticking point: the effect of a new community on Travis Air Force Base.
Taxpayer and smart-growth promises
The initiative says California Forever won’t impose any new taxes or fiscal obligations on Solano County residents outside the new community.
Any costs to the county, including current and future administrative costs, already are being reimbursed by the company, Sramek said.
Bill Emlen, Solano County Administrator, confirmed through a county spokesperson that the company has a reimbursement agreement with Solano County.
But Emlen added that because the project is being pursued through the initiative process, “we are evaluating what additional costs may be recoverable from the project proponents based on county staff time that will be required. Given the scope and scale of the proposal we believe the costs will be significant and there are already costs incurred that have not been reimbursed.”
Other potential future expenses include the cost of law enforcement. Because the new community would be unincorporated, the county sheriff’s office would be responsible — but Sramek said California Forever would pay for those costs.
“We would set up a community facilities district which could also provide services, controlled by the county,” Sramek said, adding that it would be similar to Rio Vista’s arrangement with the sheriffs. Rio Vista Mayor Ron Kott said his city pays the county for 12 full-time sheriff’s deputies.
But some of the planned infrastructure will involve or eventually involve costs to the state — and therefore Solano County residents.