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The farmland in eastern Solano County has become the subject of debate as California Forever proposes to build a city in the rural setting. Not all residents think it's a good idea.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

The Bay Area Council has been advocating vacant lot development for decades, arguing that building homes in urban centers close to jobs and public transportation is preferable to highway-clogging new developments on vacant land in suburbs like Mountain House or Tracy.

But in an unexpected new report, the powerful business-backed institute suggests that California Forever's proposal to build a major city on 17,500 acres of pastoral land in eastern Solano County may be big and bold enough to actually do what other “greenfield” communities like Mountain House in San Joaquin County have promised but failed to do: create an integrated community with a diversified economy and affordable housing.

The report examines Solano County's economic development and concludes that the county's inability to create housing and jobs has led to a faltering economy with long commutes, low wages and families barely earning enough to keep a roof over their heads. Given its location in the middle of the “megaregion” that stretches from San Francisco to Sacramento, Solano County has not lived up to its potential, the report says. It also suggests that Solano County has not created jobs and housing at the same rate as similarly positioned counties across the United States.

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“Solano County is in a unique and precarious position,” the report said. “The county's geographic location near some of the world's most prosperous economic centers should allow for significant population and employment growth, but that growth has not occurred.”

The report comes as California Forever, the billionaire-funded group that bought 66,000 acres in Solano County, is campaigning for a referendum that will go on the ballot in November. The ballot bill would exempt the project from the county's “orderly growth initiative,” which requires that all urban development take place within the boundaries of the county's seven cities rather than in unincorporated parts of the county dominated by farmland.

Grassy hills cover the landscape west of Highway 12 near Rio Vista. An investment group called California Forever has proposed building a city near this site.

Grassy hills cover the landscape west of Highway 12 near Rio Vista. An investment group called California Forever has proposed building a city near this site.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

The project, funded by Silicon Valley billionaires, has drawn strong backlash from many ranchers and environmental groups, who argue that the plan would destroy the county's agriculture and fragile ecosystem.

Jeff Bellisario, executive director of the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, said his group has studied the Northern California “megaregion” for a decade and over the years has discussed the possibility that a new city could be part of the solution to the current housing crisis. But the track record of previous new communities has been disappointing — while there have been plenty of new homes, there have been few good-paying jobs.

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“Greenfield projects are often dormitory towns that add to our commuter traffic and highway traffic,” he said.

The report analyzes the potential impact of the California Forever plan on jobs and housing, but does not examine the massive investments in the region's road infrastructure that would be needed if the new city were to become a reality. Nor does it examine the impacts on water and the environment.

But the report says the size and scope of California Forever's proposal is large enough to attract employers. The group's East Solano Plan proposes a jobs guarantee that would create 15,000 new jobs where workers would earn 125 percent of the county's average weekly wage. That would increase employment in Solano County in high-wage industries by 53 percent.

“The scale of the East Solano Plan proposal is unlike anything seen before in Northern California, and that scale gives the plan the opportunity to create more jobs than other new construction projects in Northern California have,” the report said. “By combining housing that can attract a diversified talent pool and a clear plan to attract employers, the East Solano Plan offers the opportunity to rethink the economy from the ground up.”

Cattle grave on Flannery Road near Goose Haven Road in Solano County. A new report suggests that the proposed new city to be built in this part of the county would boost the local economy and create more affordable housing.

Cattle grave on Flannery Road near Goose Haven Road in Solano County. A new report suggests that the proposed new city to be built in this part of the county would boost the local economy and create more affordable housing.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

Companies that have announced plans to open offices in the new city include aerospace manufacturer Hadrian, robotics company Serve Robotics, internet infrastructure provider Meter, and Living Carbon, which grows plants that capture more carbon than conventional vegetation.

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Duane Kromm, a Fairfield resident and one of the report's leading opponents and a former member of the Solano County Board of Supervisors, called the report's conclusions “tenuous at best.”

“They don't give any credence to the importance of farmland. The quality of life that farmland provides and what farmland does for climate change and habitat,” he said.

Kromm was also skeptical about the promise of 15,000 jobs.

“If a company wants to come here, it can come tomorrow or next week. There are opportunities throughout Solano County for companies to locate here and open their operations,” he said. “The idea that a new community is needed to attract these companies? I don't understand that logic at all.”

The report notes that housing construction in Solano County has slowed significantly over the past three decades. In 1990, Solano County had 674 housing units permitted per 100,000 residents. In 2023, that number dropped to 315 units per 100,000 residents. In Solano County, 54% of renters and 29% of homeowners are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on housing.

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A cross stands in a landscape of grassy plains west of Highway 12 in Rio Vista. The California Forever group owns a 500-acre parcel of land within the city limits of Rio Vista that is not part of the new city the group is trying to build.

A cross stands in a landscape of grassy plains west of Highway 12 in Rio Vista. The California Forever group owns a 500-acre parcel of land within the city limits of Rio Vista that is not part of the new city the group is trying to build.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

Solano County also has the lowest job-to-population ratio in the nine-county Bay Area. The county's jobs represent 39% of the adult population, compared to 102% in San Francisco. The county has 6% of the region's population, but only 3.5% of the jobs. Solano County's unemployment rate is also higher than the rest of the Bay Area, according to the report, at 4.9%, compared to the region's overall rate of 3.9%.

The report compares Solano County to three regions with similar population structure and proximity to jobs: Johnson County, Missouri (near Kansas City); Snohomish County, Washington (near Seattle); and Denton County, Texas (near Dallas). It says Solano County has lagged behind the other three counties in terms of growth and economic activity. While Solano has experienced 13% population growth since 2005, Snohomish has experienced 30% population growth, while Johnson County has grown 23% and Denton County has grown 85%.

Bellisario said all three counties “resemble Solano County 20 years ago.”

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“These places look very different today,” he said. “All of their numbers are up, while Solano County's numbers are stagnant. I believe there is untapped potential in Solano County.”

Reach JK Dineen: [email protected]

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