Campaign to build a new city in rural Solano County submits ballots

A billionaire-backed vision to build an idealistic new city on brush in rural Solano County is one step closer to becoming a reality.

On Tuesday, the Bay Area tech leaders behind the campaign, called California Forever, held a news conference to announce that they had turned over more than 20,000 voter signatures to the Solano County Clerk in support of putting the issue before local voters. If the county validates at least 13,062 of those signatures, the measure would go before voters in November, with the goal of changing zoning codes to allow the housing project to be built on agricultural land.

“The Solano voters made their first decision, and they made it loud and clear,” said Jan Sramek, a former Goldman Sachs trader and CEO of California Forever. “People from all walks of life, from all parts of the province, are all saying the same thing. They say, 'Yes, we want to have a say in the future of this place that we love.' ”

John Gardner, the county's assistant registrar of voters, confirmed Tuesday morning that his office had received the California Forever signatures.

Gardner said this initiative marks the first citizen-led ballot initiative in Solano County in more than 30 years. His office has until June 11 to conduct a preliminary investigation to determine whether enough valid signatures have been submitted to bring the measure to a vote.

In addition to Sramek, the project's backers also include LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, and Patrick and John Collison, who founded the payment processing company Stripe. As part of their campaign, California Forever released an aerial view in March of the group's plans for a community of tens of thousands of homes, surrounded by open space and trails, using renewable energy sources.

Backers are touting the project as an innovative way to create more affordable housing near the Bay Area. The designs call for the transformation of 18,000 hectares currently devoted to livestock farming and wind farms into a community of 50,000 residents that will grow to as many as 400,000 over time. The project promises 15,000 better-paying jobs in manufacturing and technology, as well as parks, bike paths and a solar farm.

Even if the measure passes the November ballot and voters approve it, the project faces a number of regulatory challenges and hurdles. Chief among these are additional approvals, including from the federal government, and the specter of lawsuits from environmental groups that have indicated they plan to take the nascent effort to court.

Development of the project began years ago with a series of mysterious land purchases by a secretive LLC called Flannery Associates. The group bought thousands of acres of farmland over several years, at a total cost of more than $800 million, raising concerns that it was a front for foreign actors seeking to spy on the nearby Travis Air Force Base.

Instead, the members of the group were revealed not as spies, but as titans of the tech industry laying the groundwork for a model city that California Forever and its supporters say will help reshape California's image. Although environmentalists and other critics question this claim, the group promises the city will be green, walkable and socio-economically diverse.

“The more people hear about what this plan is and what it isn't, the more people will be open to it,” said Brian Brokaw, spokesman for California Forever. “We look forward to communicating directly with voters in the coming months and are hopeful that we will be successful in November.”

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