Duane Kromm, an outspoken opponent of a proposed billionaire-backed city in northern California, arrived at the Solano County Water Authority meeting this month 15 minutes early to make sure he got a seat near the front. He was too late: The meeting room—which holds up to 100 people and rarely reaches capacity—was already full.
“The room was packed, the halls were packed … I was out in the hall saying, ‘Who are all you people?’” he told The Daily Beast. “It was overwhelming opposition to working with [the developers] in any way shape or form.”
California Forever, a group of Silicon Valley titans hoping to create a new city in a rural area 60 miles northeast of San Francisco, has faced local resistance from the day it launched this summer with a splashy website and promises to “bring back the California Dream.”
But the group, backed by Laurene Powell Jobs, venture capitalist Michael Moritz, Stripe co-founders John and Patrick Collison and others, has forged ahead, taking community meetings and putting forward proposals as it heads toward a vote on whether it will be allowed to start building in November 2024.
It isn’t going so well. The deep-pocketed dreamers failed to retain a local law firm they were courting and were forced to stop discussions with the water board after public outcry. A national security investigation into the backers is ongoing, and a land swap they wanted approved by the end of the year will now take much longer.
Amid all of this, local opponents have continued to show up to meetings, with one local landowner vowing to “die trying” to stop the development.
“People are not happy about the way this project has come out, and just with the sense that this group of people think they know better than the county and the people of Solano,” said Sadie Wilson of the Greenbelt Alliance, a local environmental nonprofit that is against the project. “I think people are really angry about that because they know how special this place is.”
Brian Brokaw, a spokesperson for California Forever and its subsidiary, Flannery Associates, said the project’s public debut—after many months of secrecy and anonymous land purchases—was going “probably about as could be expected.”
“There is an organized and vocal opposition, but we believe that that is a small but vocal minority,” he told The Daily Beast. “We have learned both from our prior polling, our more recent survey, and our community engagement that many people are either supportive or undecided but have a very open mind.”
“Because of all the secrecy and intrigue around the project over the last number of years, people are going to be skeptical and suspicious,” he added. “But the more they learn what it is and what it is not, people tend to be open-minded if not outright supportive.”
The meeting Kromm attended concerned California Forever’s proposal to fund a study on upgrading the county’s water infrastructure. Many cities in Solano County get their water largely from the notoriously old and unreliable North Bay Aqueduct. California Forever approached the water authority about funding a study on a replacement to serve both their city and existing ones in Solano County. In a press release, the group called it a “win-win” and a “free lunch” for the community.
Residents weren’t convinced. Approximately 200 people attended the water authority meeting in person and via Zoom—and even on Zoom from the hallway outside the packed room—and discussion lasted several hours. Five people, including California Forever founder Jan Sramek, spoke in favor of the project, Fairfield Mayor Cahterine Moy told The Daily Beast. More than two dozen, she said, “stood up and told them basically to go away.”
“That meeting did not go well for Flannery,'' she added dryly.
One resident at the meeting, Solano College biology professor Jim DeKlowe, said he had taken to calling the proposed town an “oligarch city” and fears its development will threaten local marshes. He said it was an “undermining of the democratic process” and a waste of “40 years of planning,” according to the Vacaville Reporter. Jeanne McCormack, a local landowner and vocal opponent of the project, said her family had been on the land for more than 100 years.
“We’re not leaving, and we’re not going to cooperate,” McCormack said, according to the Reporter. “And I will die trying to stop this thing from happening.”
The board elected to halt discussions—a decision Brokaw said “speaks to the close-mindedness of some politicians in the area, adding:“Fortunately, there are other potential sources for water, but that is disappointing.”
This was not the first setback. A month earlier, California Forever asked to use the same lawyers as the municipal government of Rio Vista to assist in its water sourcing efforts. The law firm testified that there would be no conflict of interest and even suggested that the arrangement could help the city, but the five council members voted unanimously to oppose it.
Rio Vista Mayor Robb Kott told The Daily Beast the council heard passionate public opposition to the proposal—something that happens often when California Forever is involved.
“It’s difficult with California Forever because there's just such a negative vibe out there about them,” Kott said. “...That's the problem [they have] to overcome, and they really have to start working on it.”
The bad blood between Solano County residents and California Forever started six years ago, when Flannery Associates started buying up tens of thousands of acres of land without disclosing its aims. Earlier this year, Flannery sued a group of farmers who refused to sell their land, accusing them of price fixing. The farmers, in turn, accused the group of “strong-arming” them into selling, even turning family members against each other in their quest to buy up acres.
The purchases also worried lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, who worried about the proximity to Travis Air Force Base. Those concerns sparked a national security investigation by the Treasury Department that continues even though the founders revealed themselves to be largely American tech billionaires. Garamendi told the New York Post this week he still believes the project bears the markings of a “patient” foreign investment scheme.
“To say it’s ‘American money’ is not a complete explanation of who is the investor,” he said. (California Forever says their funding comes mainly from Americans, and that the rest comes from investors in the UK and Ireland.)
The real test will come next November, when Solano County residents vote on whether to change a local growth ordinance to allow the development of a new city. California Forever’s ballot proposal, which will be released early next year, will be the most detailed description of the project to date. In the meantime, it is courting community support, setting up offices around the county and hosting town halls. It also recently debuted a “Community Advisory Committee” of 21 residents it says will help shape the November ballot initiative.
The strategy has won over some local officials, including Mayor Kott, who told The Daily Beast he supports the project because of the opportunities it could bring to the region. Others, including Rio Vista City Councilmember Rick Dolk, seem resigned to the idea that the project will happen whether they like it or not. “This train is coming, you know,” he said at the Oct. 3 council meeting, according to The Mercury News. “Flannery, California Forever is coming, and we can’t stop it.”
But other skeptics are holding out. Princess Washington, mayor pro tem of Suisun City, told The Daily Beast she declined a seat on the advisory board because of her role with the Sierra Club, which recently took a hard stance against the project at state and local levels. “Essentially that’s a conflict of interest for us to be on an advisory level for something that’s fundamentally against what we stand for,” she said, adding that the Sierra Club promotes the preservation of farmland and open space.
State Sen. Bill Dodd, an early opponent of the project, also remains skeptical, telling The Daily Beast the developers “dug themselves a deep hole in terms of public suspicion and opposition over the last several years, and there’s no way to fill it overnight.”
“It will take concrete actions on their part, not platitudes, to be successful,” the Democrat said. “But whether they will dig the hole deeper remains to be seen.”