Wheat Fields or Walkable City for Solano Open Space?

by | Feb 15, 2024

Photo: Daniel Tseng, Unsplash.

Rendering of new sustainable neighborhoods. Image: SITELAB urban studio_CMG

“The future is coming whether you’re here
for it or not.”

Layton Pablo

Vallejo Resident

California’s two-lane State Route 12 passes through rolling hills where farmers grow wheat without irrigation and where critically endangered mountain plovers and threatened Swainson’s hawks over-winter and breed. For Solano County residents like me, it’s a place for bird watching, marveling at ancient creatures in Jepson Prairie’s vernal pools, talking to farmers whose ancestors settled the land more than a century ago, and appreciating the tule fog draped hills. Even the wind turbines have a certain kind of grace.

But this state of grace in our county’s rolling hills was shaken last summer by a proposal for a 17,500-acre new sustainable city in the same landscape. Now, after several months of forums, town hall meetings, opposition organizing, and national press coverage (with much more to come), Solano County voters will likely decide whether to embrace or reject what is now called the “East Solano Homes, Jobs, and Clean Energy Initiative” in November 2024. 

“This is a moment of transformation across the country in our infrastructure systems where we’re modernizing for the next generation,” says B.H. Bronson Johnson of California Forever, which is pushing the new city as an answer to both regional housing problems and state climate change mitigation mandates.

Site proposed for the new city, looking east on McCormack Road. Photo: Aleta George

Site proposed for the new city, looking east on McCormack Road. Photo: Aleta George

The problem is location. California Forever, the billionaire-backed parent company of Flannery Associates, has purchased 62,000 acres of working land and open space between Fairfield and Rio Vista. They want to build a new city on land they now own, but which is protected from development by the county’s general plan and an Orderly Growth Initiative. Their vision is to house 50,000 people in a dense community with jobs, services, and schools within walking distance; design slow streets that support walking and biking; provide more public open space than any other American city; and build infrastructure that supports renewable energy and water recycling to attain the lowest greenhouse gas emissions per capita.

“Of course, we like to see dense urban communities, walkable neighborhoods, and mixed-use development,” says Sadie Wilson of the Greenbelt Alliance, “We support that all around the Bay Area, but we do it in existing communities that already have the infrastructure to accommodate the growth. When you place this type of development in the middle of agricultural space far from transportation and water services, there is nothing about it that makes sense.”

Solano’s Historic Focus on Working Lands

Many counties in the Bay Area have urban growth boundaries, but Solano County has an added layer of protection with “Orderly Growth,” a series of initiatives approved by voters that restrict urban growth to its seven cities. “It’s a policy that in spirit goes back to the 1950s,” says Harry Englebright, a retired Solano County planner. 

The origins of the initiatives can be traced even further back. Over a century ago, Solano County and Santa Clara County, the seat of Silicon Valley (then known as the Valley of Heart’s Delight), competed to get stone fruits (apricots, peaches, and plums) to the Eastern market first each spring. Many decades later Solano County witnessed Santa Clara County rip out its orchards for development and watched its cities meld into undifferentiated metropolises.

Solano County saw the writing on the land and took action to protect its agricultural future through planning. The vision paid off. According to the County’s Department of Agriculture, ag production and related businesses today contribute nearly $1.3 billion annually to the county’s economy. 

Sheep on Anderson Ranch, an over 100-year-old family farm in the Montezuma Hills that doesn’t want to sell, and is being sued. Photo: David George

Sheep on Anderson Ranch, an over 100-year-old family farm in the Montezuma Hills that doesn’t want to sell. Photo: David George

The county’s most recent general plan (1980) recognized the value of its green spaces by requiring that development occur within its cities. More robust protections followed, the most recent of which was the Orderly Growth Initiative (Measure T, 2008), which sailed into law with a two-thirds vote. 

“The whole philosophy of protection by voters has been extremely popular,” says Duane Kromm, former Solano County board supervisor and longtime member of the Solano County Orderly Growth Committee, a “watchdog” of the policy. The committee is active in Solano Together, a newly formed grassroots coalition fighting the project that includes individuals and organizations such as Greenbelt Alliance, Sierra Club and eight others.

The county’s general plan states that any proposal to develop land outside of the cities requires an amendment to the general plan. If the development is to occur on working lands or open space, the Orderly Growth Initiative requires that the plan go on the ballot for a county-wide vote. “The public makes the final decision,” says Englebright.

“The Flannery Plan is threatening to those who have put their hearts and souls into protecting open space for years,” said environmental attorney Osha Meserve during an online educational forum hosted by Sustainable Solano last November.

Map of properties purchased by Flannery as of August 2023.

Map of properties purchased by Flannery as of August 2023.

The forum was just one of many public events to debate and discuss the proposal. This February, a festive atmosphere prevailed as a crowd of more than 300 people gathered for a standing-room-only Solano Together event. Those who’ve worked together for years to protect working lands and open space hugged and hovered over a potluck enhanced with produce from a local farm. The speakers, including a Vallejo councilmember, two US congressmen, and a member of the Solano County Board of Supervisors, were fiery in their opposition.

“We all believe in the planning process and understand the need for orderly and safe growth,” said U.S. Representative Mike Thompson (4th District). “All of us have been misled by this organization that wants to come in and take over our county. They have never gained my trust.”

Leapfrogging Ahead in Urban Design

California Forever’s plan is ambitious and enticing. For one, it addresses California’s dire need for housing. According to a 2022 report by Up for Growth, a Washington, D.C., housing policy group, California has a deficit of 978,000 housing units, and the cost of homes is more than double the national average. For renters, the state has the most expensive market in the nation and one in nine renters are behind in their rent, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

California Forever’s immediate goal is to house 50,000 people, which is about half the population of Vallejo, Solano’s largest city, and five times that of Rio Vista, the county’s smallest. That’s the initial phase. Their grand vision is to eventually accommodate 400,000 people.

The 14,500-acre footprint of the planned city constitutes about four percent of agricultural land in the county, according to acreage provided in the 1980 general plan. 

California Forever planners envision a city with a dense urban footprint, including short blocks of row houses and small apartment buildings in walkable neighborhoods with parks, open spaces, and internal and external transit. Johnson, head of infrastructure and sustainability for California Forever, says that the city’s shops, schools, parks, and transit stops will be within a ten-minute walk of where people live. Advanced industrial manufacturing and maker spaces will have their own sectors, and walking, biking, and transit to work by shuttle will be encouraged by design. 

Neighborhood map, emphasizing walkable, complete, and connected neighborhoods. Image: SITELAB urban studio_CMG

Neighborhood map, emphasizing walkable, complete, and connected neighborhoods. Image: SITELAB urban studio_CMG

Sustainability goals include greenhouse gas emissions that are lower than any other place in the world, renewable and efficient transportation, and water conservation strategies that include two wastewater treatment plants that recycle and recover water. 

These goals are attainable, says Johnson, because they can build the city from the ground up with modern technologies that can link systems from the beginning (rather than having to tap into or retrofit aging existing systems). For example, a citywide geothermal system will capture and reuse waste heat from sewers and industry. 

The planned city is also at the center of several major electrical transmission lines. Planners propose solar farms (contingent upon approval from Travis Air Force Base) that can generate up to two gigawatts of electricity, enough to power the community and to share with Solano County and the region. “I think we can make a big dent in the goal of SB100, which mandates that our energy in CA is 100% renewable by the year 2045,” Johnson says. 

Walkable main streets. Image: SITELAB urban studio_CMG

Vision for walkable main streets. Image: SITELAB urban studio_CMG

The California Forever team believes that their vision is an answer to sprawl, but opponents see it as sprawl wrapped in a different package. “Building a city far from existing services constitutes sprawl,” says Greenbelt Alliance’s Sadie Wilson. “Sustainability is not building new cities but building within existing cities to support the local tax base for the things we all need for a good quality of life.” 

The opposition coalition, Solano Together, maintains that the land is already sustainable and provides ecosystem services that are difficult to quantify. Working lands provide food, fiber, and local food security, and open spaces provide carbon storage, climate resilience, habitat, and improved water and air quality, they say. According to Greenbelt Alliance, the San Francisco Bay Area has lost 217,000 acres of working lands and open space to sprawl development over the last 30 years. Nationwide, 2,000 acres of working lands are built upon every day. When that land is developed, the region loses those amenities and doesn’t get them back. 

“How we ensure a climate resilient future comes down to how we use our land as a precious and limited resource,” Wilson says.

Opponents have their work cut out for them. California Forever has oodles of money, credentialed and enthusiastic staff, slick marketing, and avid supporters. Several of their supporters attended a California Forever media event in Rio Vista. I met Sophie Ahn, a senior who told me she sold her four-acre Missouri farm and moved to Fairfield to be part of the planned city. 

I talked to Dan Lee, a retired state architect who for years made the hour-plus commute from Fairfield to San Francisco. “Why can’t we live and work here?” he said, referring to California Forever’s commitment to provide good paying jobs, one of ten voter guarantees included in the initiative. The other commitments include funding to assist home buying, scholarships, support of open space and agriculture throughout the county, and a promise to work with Caltrans to improve CA-12 and State Route 113.

“They are preaching what I want to hear,” says Lee. “I hope they keep their promise to create jobs and widen the road.”

Fairfield Town Hall meeting. Photo: Aleta George

Fairfield Town Hall meeting. Photo: Aleta George

Julie Daigle, an educator who lives and works in Benicia and sat next to me at the event, shared an unusual reason for her support. While driving to the Sierra foothills on CA-12 several decades ago, she had a vision about a city in this spot that was intergenerational and sustainable for hundreds of years. “Ever since then,” says the well-coiffed bespectacled woman who self-identifies as a seer, “I’ve been searching for a team to bring it to fruition.”

Radhika Lynette has one foot in Vallejo and the other in the planned city, and she is willing to jump. “This is the biggest opportunity in California right now.”

When asked about the Orderly Growth Initiative, several of these advocates were only vaguely aware of its existence or its importance. “Should the land be barren?” Dan Lee says. “I’ve never seen anything farmed there to tell the truth.”

Yet, it is farmed. Of the 60% of land in Solano County that is devoted to agriculture, half of it is planted to grain that is grown without irrigation in the Montezuma Hills in southeastern Solano County.

“The land may not appear to be farmland, but one farmer in the Montezuma Hills grows enough wheat for over six million loaves of bread in a year,” said Solano County Farm Bureau President William Brazelton at the Solano Together event.

Falconer and local farm bureau president Will Brazelton, whose family farm is in western Solano County. Photo: Tom Muehleisen

Falconer and local farm bureau president Will Brazelton, whose family farm is in western Solano County. Photo: Tom Muehleisen

Obstacles and Opportunities

The project has attracted attention well beyond Solano County. For years, Solano County residents, including its politicians and city leaders, didn’t know who was buying the land or why. Rumors swirled until late August 2023 when the New York Times first revealed the identity of the buyers and their vision. Since then, there has been a flurry of coverage, much of it derogatory about the “billionaires” and their “utopian” city. 

Solano County voters are left to wade through the coverage and educate themselves on complex issues as they consider their November 2024 vote. 

The first issue is the Suisun Marsh, the only tidal brackish wetland of its kind and size that’s left on the West Coast. Although the planned California Forever city is not sited within the Suisun Marsh, it has holdings that border it. Specifically, the western edge of the planned city is in the uplands of a highly productive slough. “The Nurse-Denverton slough complex is a little engine of food web production that relies on overland flows,” says John Durand, senior researcher at UC Davis’s Center for Watershed Science. “If you put a city in its path, the water will flow in a different way.”

Pond in Suisun Marsh that is part of the slough complex. Photo: Brian Williamshen

Pond in Suisun Marsh that is part of the slough complex. Photo: Brian Williamshen

Most of the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers  — a vast web of waterways, wetlands, and farmland upstream — is cut off from small tributaries because of levees and urbanization, and the slough complex is one of the few places where a small ephemeral creek flows into the marsh, bringing nutrients and sediments from the surrounding area. Currently, there is a wide swath of open space that contributes to these overland flows entering the slough complex, but the city would severely pinch that flow. Furthermore, that corner of the planned city is zoned for industry and technology, the type of activity that requires trucks. Surface road pollutants from truck traffic could degrade local water quality.

Another key factor related to the Suisun Marsh is climate change. As sea levels rise and the southern half of the Suisun Marsh becomes open water, there is only one place for the marsh to migrate, and that is at the western edge of the planned city. In his book, Suisun Marsh: Ecological History and Possible Futures, UC Davis Professor Emeritus Peter Moyle identifies the Nurse-Denverton slough complex as a marsh migration corridor, and the land north of CA-12 as a “marsh-upland migration buffer.” A swath of land connects the Nurse-Denverton complex to the Cache-Lindsey slough complex northeast of the planned city. These systems don’t follow city boundaries. “Once you harden a region, you have less flexibility to manage a marsh,” says Durand.

“The Suisun Resource Conservation District will have grave concerns with any project that does not promote the protection and preservation of the Suisun Marsh’s uplands, wetlands, waters, and wildlife habitats,” says Steve Chappell, director of the Suisun Resource Conservation District. 

Eastern Solano is also home to vernal pools that support unusual creatures like California tiger salamanders and Conservancy fairy shrimp. Only ten percent of this unique habitat is left in the state, much of which stretches from Travis AFB to the Sacramento River, and from Hay Road in the north to CA-12. Connectivity between pools is vital.

Rendering of imagined opportunities for city dwellers to connect with local open space and marshes. Image:  SITELAB urban studio_CMG

Rendering of imagined opportunities for city dwellers to connect with local open space and marshes. Image: SITELAB urban studio_CMG

Voters might also wonder if there is enough water to support a new city in Solano County. “The short answer is yes,” says the environmental attorney Meserve, “but the county already has challenges with water supply and variability. Water could be a great limiter for this project.”

Just how much water will be needed? In addition to the requirements of everyday living, there are plans for an industrial and technology sector with manufacturing, defense, aerospace, technology, energy, logistics, and research. To support all this, they will likely need a data center and lots of water to cool the servers. According to PCMag, Google used 5.6 billion gallons of water in 2022, primarily to cool its data centers.

At the Solano Together event, US Representative John Garamendi spoke about the project’s threat to Travis AFB. Travis officials have expressed concerns that the location of the city beneath flight zones will affect combat training missions.

The list of issues and obstacles for the proposed city doesn’t stop there. For one, it’s unlikely that CA-12 and the ancient Rio Vista Bridge have the capacity to absorb the 50,000 new residents that will surely want to also travel outside of their walkable city. For another, much of the land they have purchased is recognized as mitigation land in the Solano County Habitat Conservation Plan; the loss of that land will impact the ability of associated development projects to proceed inside of cities.

In the meantime, some of the properties they have purchased may go fallow. “The entire agricultural economy is imperiled, even if they just sit on the land,” says Meserve. “Flannery should be required to maintain the agricultural productivity of the land it is holding. They also need to stop suing and scaring the farms that have not sold to them.”

According to Fortune magazine, Flannery Associates is seeking $510 million in damages from the landowners for conspiring to inflate the price of their land.

Ian Anderson is one of the legacy farmers that Flannery is suing. The soft-spoken, six-foot-four farmer admits that California Forever has many promising ideas. “We’re all trying to cut back on carbon use. None of us want the world to get to too high a temperature,” said the grain and sheep farmer at the February Solano Together event. “I’m in favor of those ideas, but the location is by far the biggest problem. Why take ag land out of production for solar when you can put panels on commercial buildings?”

Representative John Garamendi was not so gentle. “Any organization that sets about to sue family farmers for $500 million, so they can force a sale, deserves to be thrown out of this county,” he said from the stage at the Solano Together event to  thunderous applause. 

Margaret & Ian Anderson. Photo: Aleta George

Margaret & Ian Anderson. Photo: Aleta George

Down to Youth

At a California Forever town hall meeting in Fairfield, most of the 200-member audience was gray haired. One woman told California Forever leader Jan Sramek after the event that he needed to reach younger people, those who will be most affected by the change. 

A month later, at an event in Rio Vista, I sought out a young man sporting a black cap who was nodding approval in the front row. Vallejo resident Layton Pablo, 31, likes the positivity of the project. “The future is coming whether you’re here for it or not,” he says.

Recent Solano Together forum. Photo: Aleta George

Recent Solano Together forum. Photo: Aleta George

Those who turned out to the Solano Together event this February also tilted older, though one of their most outspoken members is 23-year-old Aiden Mayhood. Mayhood’s grandfather retained 80% of his Eastern Solano land but sold the other 20% to Flannery. A first-generation college student, Mayhood is a recent graduate of UCLA where he studied economics and political science. He wants to ensure that if Flannery builds homes, they are affordable for current residents.

“If this ballot initiative fails, we could see years and years of negotiations that could be promising. Maybe we could get some sort of development that provides affordable housing for young people, but it’s not there right now,” Mayhood says. 

California Forever will soon start to gather the signatures needed to put their initiative before voters in November 2024, an initiative that includes amending the county’s general plan. 

As an environmental journalist who has covered open space and development issues for two decades, and a resident of Solano County who is active with my city’s effort to meet the challenges of the climate crisis and sea level rise, I am keeping an open mind for now. In my years of covering these issues I have never heard a developer claim they want to build the most sustainable city in the world, never seen so many engaged people showing up at events with good questions, and never seen this level of promised investment in our county.

Map of area proposed for the California Forever project in the East Solano county initiative.

Map of area proposed for the California Forever project  in the East Solano county initiative.

Some of my colleagues who cover climate and environment see the proposal as a breath of fresh air, especially since so many innovative projects get quashed by red tape, inward-looking local governments, infrastructure economics, and the elephant in the room: current urban residents often fight attempts to build housing inside their cities.

“I don’t think that [California Forever] is going to go away, but I don’t think that they just get to have their way,” says Aiden Mayhood, whose heart is in the land of Eastern Solano County. 


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