A billionaire-backed campaign for a new California city is off to a bumpy start

Feb 28, 2024, 10:24 PM

FILE - A map of a new proposed community in Solano County, Calif., is displayed during a news confe...

FILE - A map of a new proposed community in Solano County, Calif., is displayed during a news conference in Rio Vista, Calif. on Jan. 17, 2024. A billionaire-backed proposal to build an eco-friendly California city from scratch is off to a bumpy start in qualifying its voter initiative for the Nov. 5 ballot. The deadline for the Solano County counsel's office to give California Forever the ballot title they need to start gathering signatures is Thursday, Feb. 29. (AP Photo/Janie Har, File)

(AP Photo/Janie Har, File)

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — After two false starts, the billionaires behind a plan to build an eco-friendly city from scratch are behind schedule and off to a bumpy start to put their proposal before California voters this November.

Former Goldman Sachs trader Jan Sramek unveiled his closely guarded ballot initiative for the proposed community between San Francisco and Sacramento in January, a plan that envisions 20,000 homes, transit infrastructure, schools, jobs and green space for an initial 50,000 residents. He has since amended it twice to address concerns raised by Solano County and a neighboring U.S. Air Force base.

Thursday is the deadline for the county counsel’s office to give the ballot initiative a title and summary, which will allow signature gatherers to hit the streets in search of the 13,000 they need — and preferably thousands more as a cushion. The delays mean the campaign has just two months, not three, to collect signatures if they want to give elections officials the maximum time to verify them.

“You get into this math game of time and availability of people to sign your petition,” said Jim Ross, a veteran Democratic political consultant based in Oakland. “Losing a month is a big deal.”

But Brian Brokaw, a spokesperson for the campaign, said he is confident about making the Nov. 5 ballot.

“We’ve been walking a line of making sure we get this right and also realizing that the clock is ticking,” he said. “At the same time, we believe that the amendments that we made to the measure will significantly help increase our chances of success in November, and it was definitely worth the additional time that it cost us to get it right.”

Sramek needs Solano County voters to allow urban development on rural land his company has stealthily purchased since 2018 for at least $800 million to build what he’s pitched as a walkable community for up to 400,000 residents with a cute downtown, good-paying jobs and affordable homes. The state desperately needs more housing, especially affordable units.

Sramek has not said how much he’s prepared to spend on the effort. His California Forever company can count on the deep pockets of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, including philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman.

But lots of money doesn’t always translate to ballot success — in 2022, California voters rejected two efforts to expand gambling despite at least $460 million spent by supporters.

Critics say the delays are on par for an unorthodox campaign that operated in secrecy for years, eschewed local input and now wants to break ground on agricultural land voters chose to protect from urbanization back in 1984.

“What we see from that is a bit of oversight in their process of actually engaging folks,” said Sadie Wilson, planning and research director at Greenbelt Alliance. The environmental advocacy group is part of Solano Together, a coalition that includes farming and open space interests and environmental groups.

Opponents of the plan say it makes flashy promises but is shockingly light on details.

The sustainable way to build more housing is within existing city limits, Wilson said, rather than plunking an enormous development on 27 square miles (70 square kilometers) of land in a county of 450,000 people with sensitive ecosystems and an already strained water supply.

Locals had wondered for years who had snapped up parcels containing cattle and wind farms. They were stunned to learn last summer that Sramek and his Silicon Valley investors wanted it for a new development — not yet named — that could become a city or remain part of the county.

Sramek then went on something of an apology tour, including meeting with two irate congressmen who had sought for years to find out whether foreign adversaries or investors were behind the land purchases between Travis Air Force Base and the Sacramento River Delta city of Rio Vista. Reps. John Garamendi and Mike Thompson still oppose the project.

In January, Sramek held a news conference to outline the ballot initiative, filed it with the county elections office and then withdrew it — all on the same day — after county officials requested language clarifying the process.

California Forever could have avoided this had the campaign shared its proposal with local officials ahead of time, said Ross, the consultant. “It’s very much an outsider approach,” he said.

Bernadette Curry, counsel for Solano County, said officials asked for technical changes to clarify that the county had discretion to approve a development agreement with the company before it can build. Previously the initiative contained language requiring approval by the county supervisors.

The initiative specifies that the development agreement will include the 10 guarantees made by California Forever, such as $400 million to help county residents and Travis Air Force Base families buy homes in the community and $200 million for the county’s existing downtowns. An environmental impact review would also be required.

The campaign withdrew its initiative again after base officials raised concerns including its ability to conduct flight operations. The revised initiative establishes a larger buffer area between the development and the base.

There is no firm deadline for submitting signatures, said John Gardner, the county’s assistant registrar of voters. But the Solano County Board of Supervisors has only until Aug. 8 to approve its inclusion on the ballot, and elections officials have between 30 and 90 days to verify signatures.

That 90-day window means the campaign would need to submit its paperwork by early May.

Wilson, of Solano Together, said the approach taken by California Forever raises national questions about how decisions are made about development, farmland and climate resilience — and who gets to circumvent the rules.

“This really deserves greater attention because of the wave this brings,” she said, “and the precedent that it could set for other places around the country.”

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A billionaire-backed campaign for a new California city is off to a bumpy start