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Residents sound off about billionaire-backed ‘utopia’ in Solano County

A person points from his chair in a tan jacket.
Michael Hayes, a native of Vallejo and resident of Benicia, points during a town hall Wednesday about California Forever, the proposed billionaire-backed city in Solano County. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard

The public got its first chance this week to sound off face-to-face with the backers of a billionaire-funded plan to build a new city in southeastern Solano County about how such a development would impact their community.

Vallejo residents said they worry about the proposed city in the surrounding region and how it would gobble up arable land. They also cast doubt on the developer’s promise that the master-planned city would bring lasting jobs to nearby communities.

Residents made their voices heard at a town hall Wednesday, the first such meeting held by the backers of the development billed as California Forever. 

A crowd of people listen to a man giving a presentation in front of a large screen.
People listen during a presentation by California Forever CEO Jan Sramek during a Wednesday town hall in Vallejo about a billionaire-funded effort to build a new city in Solano County. | Source: Garrett Leahy/The Standard

Unlike a public town hall, however, Wednesday’s meeting was tightly controlled, barred signs and seemed more intent on pitching the development than fielding criticism from the community.

People wishing to attend the town hall meeting had to register in advance and be checked in with a guest list, which attendees said created an obstacle for community input. During a Q&A session held after a presentation explaining the project, a California Forever staffer went to the front of the room and began asking questions of the organization’s CEO, Jan Sramek, rather than opening the floor to residents, much to the chagrin of the audience.

“When can we ask questions?” shouted local resident Aiden Mayhood, a Rio Vista resident and organizer with Solano Forever, which opposes the project.

READ MORE: California Forever’s Billionaire Utopia Plan Dubbed ‘Hostile Takeover’ by Sierra Club

California Forever also did not allow signs to be displayed inside the town hall venue, and the organization’s press secretary, Justin Kramer, declined to speak on the record when approached by The Standard.

Much of the information about the project shared during the meeting echoed what developers have shared in polished renderings and presentations in the preceding months.  

An artistic illustration shows people walking through a bustling urban market.
An illustration depicts people walking through a plaza in a Solano County city proposed by the group California Forever. Several Bay Area tech billionaires are behind the company, and the group has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years to acquire land in Solano County with the hopes of transforming it into a modern metropolis. | Source: Courtesy California Forever

California Forever aims to turn 50,000 acres of Solano County farmland into a new city of around 50,000 people. The new area would be as walkable as Paris and create tens of thousands of jobs, according to a pitch from venture capitalist Michael Moritz.

Sramek, a former investment banker, spearheaded the land acquisition behind the California Forever effort starting in 2017. 

A man in a green jacke speaks infront of a project and people.
Jan Sramek, founder and CEO of California Forever—the proposed billionaire-backed development in Solano County—presents information at a town hall in Vallejo on Wednesday. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard

An elite group of tech entrepreneurs and investors later joined, 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 Moritz, formerly of Sequoia Capital. Moritz is chairman of The Standard.

RELATED: New Billionaire-Backed City Would Destroy Rural Feel, Locals Say

So far, $900 million has been spent on purchasing land for the new city, Sramek said during the town hall. The purchases were made by a company called Flannery Associates, which has Hoffman, Moritz and both Collison siblings as some of its investors.

‘Very Disrespectful’

Many of those in attendance Wednesday night reacted negatively during Sramek’s presentation, shaking their heads, laughing or voicing disagreement with the CEO’s remarks.

“What about the Native American graves that you’re going to be excavating and building on without even consulting us, the natives of this land?” asked Marge Grow-Eppard, a Miwok who was born and raised in Vallejo, said to Sramek during the town hall’s Q&A. “You’re already talking about $900 million, but you have not said anything about the respect for the native people of this land. This is very disrespectful for us.”

Two people sit and listen to a speaker.
Melissa Mendoza, left, and Marge Grow-Eppard, center—both Native Americans and residents of Solano County—are seen during a town hall regarding California Forever on Wednesday. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard

Others criticized the land purchases by Flannery Associates as secretive and made it appear the project was trying to avoid being transparent.

“It’s the secrecy,” Vallejo resident Paula Conley said.“This is a whole city, not a shopping center. I think it nullifies the whole point here of them trying to be open about it.”

A woman holds up a cardboard sign.
Paula Conley holds up a sign protesting California Forever, a billionaire-funded project to build a new city in Solano County, during a town hall in Vallejo on Wednesday. | Source: Garrett Leahy/The Standard

Katy Miessner, who served on the Vallejo City Council until terming out last year, said she was skeptical about California Forever’s claim about creating thousands of jobs. 

“What’s going to happen when all the construction jobs dry up?” Miessner asked. “You could help us come in and help us fix our city 'cause we have no money,” she added to applause.

Others shared Miessner’s feelings that the millions spent by Flannery Associates to purchase huge amounts of land would have been better invested in existing cities in Solano County, including Vallejo, which residents said has a large number of homeless people and would benefit from more housing development and jobs with higher pay and secure employment.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Vallejo native Anne Carr said. “They’re going to build this utopia, but we could use the jobs and development here. It doesn’t do good to have service jobs here, what Vallejo needs are big corporation jobs where there’s advancement and you can devote yourself.”

A woman gestures while speaking with a man.
Anne Carr speaks with California Forever CEO Jan Sramek after a Vallejo town hall about the project Wednesday. | Source: Garrett Leahy/The Standard

Mayhood, of the opposition group Solano Forever, said his family has farmed for generations in the area eyed for the California Forever development. He said the planned city would remove agricultural land in the Montezuma Hills that is productive and eco-friendly, as it relies almost entirely on rainwater, rather than groundwater or other water sources.

In his presentation, Sramek acknowledged concerns about the loss of farmable land, claiming that the planned city would only be the size of existing cities nearby, such as Fairfield, and would only reduce the food production of the area by roughly 5%.

Garrett Leahy can be reached at garrett@sfstandard.com