Tech billionaires want to build a new city in rural California. Voters may get a say on it | California

The controversial plan backed by Silicon Valley billionaires to build a new city in northern California farmland could come before voters later this year.

California Forever, the company that quietly acquired 60,000 acres of land in Solano county and recently revealed it planned to build a city there, announced on Wednesday it would submit a ballot initiative asking voters to clear the way for the project.

Along with the announcement of the ballot initiative, the company shed further light on its plans. It is proposing to create a new walkable and sustainable community with a variety of housing options, including apartments and row houses, on 18,600 acres in east Solano county, about 60 miles from San Francisco. Their plan also includes a pledge to create as many as 15,000 jobs, a $400m fund for down payment assistance as well as a requirement that at least 4,000 acres be used for parks, trails and other green spaces.

The first phase of development would likely start with 20,000 homes for about 50,000 residents, but it could eventually grow to 400,000 people. The company’s founder and CEO, Jan Sramek, has argued the development will help aid California’s housing shortage.

“In sum, the East Solano Homes, Jobs, and Clean Energy Initiative lays out the details of a plan to build a dynamic new community, with homes people can afford, in safe walkable neighborhoods,” the company said in a statement.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Sramek said the project would bring together design teams, local contractors, architects, homebuilders, families and non-profits “to pull something together that hasn’t been done in America in the last 50 years but [that] we believe is very much needed”.

“We think that Solano county has the potential to be an amazing success story in California at a time when California badly needs a win,” he said.

The project has been nothing if not controversial. Before California Forever came forward with its plan, its shadowy effort to acquire large swathes of land in the county briefly drew the attention of the US military and FBI and raised concerns among residents, particularly after the company sued landowners who sold their land over what it deemed an “illegal price-fixing conspiracy”.

Since then, it has emerged California Forever has spent nearly $1bn acquiring land in the area, including around the nation’s busiest airforce base, and is now the largest landowner in Solano county.

A rendering by California Forever, which proposes a walkable community of apartments and row houses on 18,600 acres in east Solano county. Photograph: California Forever

The company revealed it was backed by some of the biggest names in tech and venture capital, including Reid Hoffman, the LinkedIn co-founder; venture capitalist Michael Moritz; Laurene Powell Jobs, the founder of the philanthropic group Emerson Collective and wife of the late Steve Jobs; and Marc Andreessen, the investor and software developer.

But whether its plans will become reality remains deeply unclear. The project has received fierce opposition from local officials, environmental groups and residents worried about the impact of a sizable new city on the county.

Elected officials in nearby cities, including Rio Vista and Fairfield, have expressed concerns over the company’s initial secretive approach, how the new city would impact the tax base, and water supplies.

“What I heard today, it’s still an absolute no,” resident Barbara Barry said at a town hall hosted by the company last year. Barry said she was concerned about overcrowding and an increased burden on taxpayers to support the new city, KCRA reported.

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Other residents, including local farmers and ranchers, have said they are concerned about the proposed city straining the county’s already limited water resources.

A local chapter of the Sierra Club described California Forever’s efforts as a “hostile takeover” that will remove important agricultural land.

The company has said it has received feedback from more than 12,000 county residents through town halls, phone calls and surveys and that it has incorporated that input into its plan.

Beginning in February, California Forever will begin collecting signatures to put the initiative before voters – it will need 13,500 to make it on the November ballot. The company said it plans to conduct a fiscal study to determine the costs and tax revenues in the county, and hold a series of public events to answer questions.

In its announcement, California Forever said it would guarantee the project would not impose any financial obligations or taxes on residents outside the community and that it would ensure “reliable and sustainable water supply”. California Forever also argued it would expand the county’s tax base while providing badly needed housing, including for families of the nearby air force base.

Along with its jobs commitment and down payment assistance program, the company promised it would commit $70m in scholarship funding for county residents, $200m for revitalizing the downtowns of other cities in the area, build schools for the community and improve highway safety.

Patrice Lewis, a local community organizer working on the campaign for the project, said at Wednesday’s press conference that the proposed community provides an opportunity to uplift the entire county.

“It’s definitely the talk of the town. [There’s] definitely a lot of the controversy, but I’m not really worried about that. Change is not always easy,” she said.

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