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New billionaire-backed city would destroy rural feel, locals say

Plans are afoot to build a utopian metropolis in Rio Vista. | Source: Noah Berger/The Standard

Not much happens in Rio Vista that anyone outside the sleepy delta town of 10,000 cares about.

At Foster’s Bighorn on Main Street, the most popular local bar, the walls are adorned with a huge collection of taxidermy, ranging from elephants and cougars to 10-point bucks.

A ways down the road at Lira’s Supermarket, the town’s only real grocery store, posters promoting the Rio Vista High Rams football and volleyball team’s schedules sit next to school merch for locals to buy.

Rio Vista folks know the lay of land around them. They won’t drive at certain times of day due to the region’s antiquated bridges, which often snarl traffic along Highway 12—the only major road—when stalled in upright positions.

a bridge over a river
A barge passes beneath the Rio Vista Bridge on Sept. 6, 2023. California Forever, a group that's been purchasing land in the area, hopes to build a city in eastern Solano County. | Source: Noah Berger for The Standard

“During the weekdays, you don’t want to be driving through here around 3 or 4 o’clock,” 15-year Rio Vista resident Beth Brockhouse counseled, “either coming up on [Highway] 160 or going across on Highway 12.”

So national headlines buzzing with the news that technocrats are buying swaths of land to build a utopian metropolis on their doorstep feel a bit jarring to locals of the waterlogged delta hamlet that feels in many ways like a time capsule.

For years, townsfolk were mystified about why a company called Flannery Associates was snapping up what amounted to 50,000 acres of surrounding countryside. Conspiracy theories raged among locals and politicians, with genuine concerns that China—or some other foreign entities—was behind the purchases.

Since California Forever recently announced it was the parent company plotting a new metropolis, some in Rio Vista feel their way of life will be forever changed—engulfed by the Bay Area’s urban sprawl.

California Forever plans to build a new utopian metropolis after an elite group of tech entrepreneurs and investors backed the venture, including Andreessen Horowitz partners Marc Andreessen and Chris Dixon, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, Stripe co-founders Patrick and John Collison, billionaire philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs and Michael Moritz, formerly of Sequoia Capital. Moritz is the chairman of The Standard.

“We’ve been talking about it for quite some time,” Brockhouse said. “We have friends who own land around here. So it’s sort of been this low-key rumor for quite a while.”

‘That Dirty Delta feel’

Not everyone in Rio Vista is convinced California Forever will ever happen. 

Some drub the idea as a fantasy. Others are more open-minded and optimistic about the prospect but have a laundry list of infrastructure improvements they’d want to see before any new city is built.

Max Guerrero moved to Rio Vista from neighboring Antioch in 2018. He chose the city after being approved for the California Housing Finance Agency’s first-time homebuyers loan, believing the region to be a rural enclave where he could actually own a home—a feeling he said is shared among his neighbors. 

“I didn’t realize until I crossed the Antioch Bridge that there’s not a lot happening out here,” Guerrero said. “It’s peaceful and serene. I think people are happy with that small-town feel, that Dirty Delta feel.”

Max Guerrero discusses California Forever’s proposed development while standing outside his home in Rio Vista. | Source: Noah Berger for The Standard

Guerrero’s sentiment was echoed by Rio Vista residents drinking at Ben’s Friends of the Vine wine bar on a recent afternoon.

“We don’t want this to grow into some giant cityscape around here,” said Andrea Cross, who owns the wine bar. “It looks like, from their plans, that’s what they’re planning to do. We want this place to stay this quaint, small delta town. I just foresee it as destroying the little guy.”

As server Ashley Turner poured wine for customers, she slammed the secrecy of the group’s land acquisitions.

“Hands down, if they would have let us know about this, we would have had a large protest with hundreds of people standing on the land to not let them take it,” said Turner, who added she has lived along Highway 12 her whole life. “This town may be small, but there is so much rich history out here with the agriculture and the farming. There’s a reason why they called the Sacramento River the Nile of the West Coast.”

Andrea Cross, owner of Ben’s Friends of the Vine, discusses California Forever’s proposed development at her wine bar in Rio Vista on Sept. 6, 2023. | Source: Noah Berger for The Standard

Other residents, like Stacy and John Lampa, who sat eating lunch along Main Street, said the outsider project would not be widely supported by locals.

“We moved here within the last 3 1⁄2 years and have tried to start different food businesses here that haven’t received attention from the longtime residents,” John Lampa said. “I think the [California Forever] idea is a fantasyland in a way.”

Although he doubts the project will happen during his lifetime, he thinks the potential influx of people could mean more customers for local businesses.

“I see a lot of potential in it,” he said.

Stacy Lampa, left, and John Lampa share their thoughts on the proposed tech utopia. | Source: Noah Berger for The Standard

‘Our Bridges Are Definitely Bottlenecks’

Residents of Rio Vista who spoke with The Standard agreed that before the California Forever project could welcome residents, local roads and bridges must be adjusted to account for any increase in population.

According to Brockhouse, the antiquated bridges around Rio Vista cause the already congested roads to swell with midday traffic, which deters many residents from driving certain hours.

“[The Helen Madere Memorial Rio Vista bridge] is pretty old,” Brockhouse said.“We’ve received maintenance notices telling us to expect delays of up to 20 minutes on our commutes into January of next year. It can back us up in Rio Vista. Our bridges are definitely bottlenecks around here.”

The California Department of Transportation, which operates the Delta bridges, did not return requests for comment.

A pedestrian passes a mural in the heart of Rio Vista. | Source: Noah Berger for The Standard

Guerrero’s window-washing company takes him around the Bay Area. He often gets stuck on his commute back into Rio Vista and has experienced times where the Helen Madere Memorial Rio Vista Bridge malfunctions, forcing him to take alternative routes to get home while adding an extra hour to his commute.

“Stuff like this has to be addressed before we start dropping houses in there,” he said.

California Forever CEO Jan Sramek told The Standard that the group met with some Solano County and city leaders last week.

“We haven’t yet put forward any detailed plans, so we completely understand why local residents have not yet made up their mind about the project,” Sramek wrote in an email. “We are confident that once we propose plans, which will be informed by our ongoing community engagement, residents in Rio Vista and throughout Solano County will broadly support our proposal.” 

Pedestrians walk along Main Street in downtown Rio Vista. | Source: Noah Berger for The Standard

Since the backers of California Forever revealed themselves, Solano County officials responded to the news saying that the county has been in communication with the group and that the acquired land is under a 2008 voter-approved ordinance limiting the land to agricultural uses.

“To be clear, if the recent reports in the media are true, along with the assertions made on California Forever’s website, the concept of creating a new urban center in Solano County raises some complex issues,” Solano County officials stated in a press release. “For decades, Solano County residents have consistently decided at the ballot box that preservation of agricultural land is priority. In addition, a cornerstone of county land-use policy has centered around protection of Travis Air Force Base from any encroachment that may impact its viability. Beyond any effort to place a land use change on the ballot, there would remain substantial entitlement and permitting processes that involve county, state and federal agencies.”

County officials also said they have yet to confirm details about the project with the California Forever group since it has “not submitted any project information or proposals to county staff at this time.”

The long process to incorporate a city in California has Dino Gambina scoffing at the idea of ever seeing the proposed metropolis outside of rosy renderings.

Gambina, who retired to Rio Vista in 2020 and was staring out at the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta on a recent afternoon, said the rumors don’t worry him at all.

Local resident Dino Gambina discusses California Forever’s proposed development in Rio Vista on Sept. 6, 2023. | Source: Noah Berger for The Standard

“I’m not going to be here when that happens,” he said with a laugh. “So I’m not thinking that far ahead or giving it much thought.”

In contrast, the reality of the situation in Rio Vista is much more pressing on the minds of Guerrero and his long-time girlfriend, Katie Kerwin, who is five months pregnant with the couple’s first child.

Guerrero said that though they don’t know when the California Forever plan may materialize, the thought of a metropolis next door may push them out of the area.

“If it starts growing and expanding like the way parts of Contra Costa and Alameda counties did, I feel like it may scare a lot of people out of this area,” he said. “In the next 10 years, if it gets crazier in this town, if more people come out here and the economy starts building a little more out here, we probably will get pushed away to someplace where we could keep it a bit more rural.”