California’s billionaire utopia may not be as eco-friendly as advertised

A land trust claims the plan could 'destroy some of the most self-reliant farmland' in the state.
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California Forever concept art of utopian cityscape
California Forever wants to construct a new 'city of yesterday' from scratch outside of San Francisco. California Forever

Silicon Valley billionaires are still aggressively moving forward with their attempt to create a utopian, sustainable “city of yesterday” near San Francisco atop what they describe as “non-prime farmland.” However, an accredited land trust now claims California Forever’s East Solano Plan is intentionally misleading local residents about the “detrimental harm” it will cause ecosystems, as well as its potential to “destroy some of the most self-reliant farmland and ranchland” in the state.

Following a monthslong review process, the Solano Land Trust announced on June 6 that it strongly opposes California Forever’s plan to build a new municipality featuring tens of thousands of “middle class homes in safe, walkable neighborhoods,” a large solar energy farm, giant orchards, and over 10,000 acres of new parks and open space. 

Instead, as CBS Sacramento first reported on June 7, Solano Land Trust’s executive director Nicole Braddock contends California Forever’s aim “really goes against our mission of protecting working farms, natural areas, land and water Solano County.” Additionally, the influx of as many as 400,000 new residents would result in “a detrimental impact on Solano County’s water resources, air quality, traffic, farmland, and natural environment,” according to the trust’s board of directors.

Founded in 1986, the Solano Land Trust maintains partnerships with farmers, landowners, ranchers, and nearby community members to provide stewardship for tens of thousands of acres. These areas include rare vernal pools, tidal marsh wetlands, and woodlands within California’s Greater Bay Area, but it’s the trust’s Jepson Prairie Preserve that borders California Forever’s proposed 60,000-acre development site.

Contrary to investor claims, the trust argues that transforming the region’s landscape would eradicate some of California’s most water-efficient farmlands. These spaces rely on natural rainwater instead of irrigation infrastructure to maintain their crops and livestock, in turn replenishing underground aquifers while also holding carbon within the soil. They also describe the area as a “sensitive habitat… home to rare and endangered plants and animals.”

[Related: Billionaire-backed company has bought all the land it needs for its ‘city of yesterday.’]

After years of stealth investment and land purchases, California Forever went public in August 2023 with its plans to build a city from scratch northeast of San Francisco. Backers include prominent venture capitalists, LinkedIn’s co-founder, and Lauren Powell Jobs, the billionaire philanthropist and wife of the late Steve Jobs. Concept art depicts idyllic town squares, lakeside vistas, and “one of the most walkable and sustainable [towns] in the United States,” according to the website. In November, Solano residents will likely vote on a ballot initiative that would rezone an initial 17,500 acres of farmland for the project.

California Forever says development is entirely located on “non-prime farmland” with “low quality soils” that produce less than 2-percent of Solano’s total agricultural production—an allegation the land trust’s executive director Nicole Braddock vehemently denied.

“Their strategy is to mislead voters into thinking this is a wasteland but the land is operating with such incredible value from habitat to water recharge to growing food,” Braddock told CBS Sacramento last week.

[Related: Silicon Valley’s wealthiest want to build their own city outside of San Francisco.]

In a June 6 statement, California Forever also incorrectly claims the Solano Land Trust’s “primary donor” is a San Francisco group called the Orderly Growth Committee that is “funded by a tax on every trash bill in Solano County… [which] would be put to better use by focusing on homes and jobs for Solano County’s residents.”

In actuality, the tax in question is levied on San Francisco residents for transporting their refuse to Solano. While the land trust has received annual $250,000 grants from the committee since 2016, Braddock told The Daily Republic on June 8 that combined annual property tax assessment funds from Solano County and Fairfield exceeds this amount. The land trust’s 2024-25 budget is $5.3 million with an operation budget of $3.9 million.

“They are dead wrong on both the Land Trust financing and Orderly Growth’s source of funds,” Duane Kromm, a committee member and former county supervisor, wrote online according to The Daily Republic. “… A pox on their terribly misguided plan.”

California Forever is currently overseen by Jan Sramek, a former Goldman Sachs trader who recently attempted to sue local Solano County farmers for $510 billion over alleged antitrust violations. The suit was later dropped after local landowners agreed to sell properties at $18,000 an acre.

“The idea of building a new community and economic opportunity in eastern Solano seemed impossible on the surface,” Sramek wrote to Popular Science at the time. “But after spending a lot of time learning about the community, which I now call home, I became convinced that with thoughtful design, the right long-term patient investors, and strong partnerships… we can create a new community.”

Popular Science has reached out the Solano Land Trust for additional comment.

UPDATE 06/11/2024 8:50AM: This article has been updated to better reflect Solano Land Trust funding sources as well as a statement from California Forever.