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California Forever Project Must Overcome Land-Use Restrictions

Marc Joffe

While California struggles with a housing shortage, city and county zoning laws prevent residential development on large swathes of land within the state. One such restriction is Solano County’s Orderly Growth Initiative, which generally prevents landowners from creating residential subdivisions on land zoned as agricultural.

Aside from exacerbating the state’s housing shortage, measures like the Orderly Growth Initiative (often called Urban Growth Boundaries) restrict the liberty of property owners to use their land as they see fit. But Solano County’s restrictions may soon face a challenge from a group of Silicon Valley investors.

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(Getty Images)

The group, operating under the name California Forever, includes investors Marc Andreessen, Patrick and John Collison, Chris Dixon, John Doerr, Nat Friedman, Daniel Gross, Reid Hoffman, Michael Moritz and Laurene Powell Jobs. They have purchased over 50,000 acres of agricultural land in the eastern portion of the county.

Their intention is to build a set of walkable neighborhoods with access to good‐​paying local jobs as well as educational, dining, and shopping opportunities. None of that, however, will be possible given current zoning restrictions.

To free itself from these restrictions, California Forever will likely need to pass a ballot initiative relaxing the Orderly Growth Initiative. Success at the ballot will require overcoming objections from local leaders. These objections have strong rebuttals, as I suggested in a recent San Jose Mercury News op‐​ed and expand upon here.

Critics fault the proposed city for not being near transit, with the implication that it will lead to more driving and greenhouse gas emissions than urban infill projects. But the northwestern edge of the land accumulated by California Forever is near the Capitol Corridor rail line operated in conjunction with Amtrak. The line provides service to Sacramento and San Jose, along with transfers to BART in Richmond and Oakland. Today, departures on this line are limited and travel times are relatively long, but the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority has a plan to increase and accelerate service.

The core of the prospective new city is several miles away from the Capitol Corridor. To ensure that city residents can reach San Francisco, San Jose, and Sacramento without a car, developers could build a rail spur on an unused right‐​of‐​way or provide multi‐​use trails that would allow cyclists to easily reach the nearest station.

But, as communications technology improves and remote work becomes normalized, the need for residents of a new eastern Solano County city to commute should be limited. Because the city will include a collection of densely populated, mixed‐​use communities, residents will live within a short walk, bike ride, or scooter trip from shopping, dining, recreational, educational, and co‐​working facilities, reducing the need for car trips.

Infill projects are great in theory but often meet with stiff local resistance, which contributes to high construction costs and delays. The result is that expensive housing is often made affordable to some only through lavish taxpayer subsidies.

California Forever’s critics have also questioned how the new city will acquire water given the area’s modest rainfall. Project promoters suggest upgrading the North Bay Aqueduct, but desalting nearby bay and river water may also be an option. The nearby City of Antioch is currently completing a desalination plant, which could serve as a model for a similar facility serving California Forever. Admittedly, obtaining approvals for a new desalination plant in California can be challenging. Intense use of water recycling technologies could also reduce the city’s need for water on a per‐​resident basis.

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Cows graze on a parcel of land that was recently purchased on August 29, 2023 near Rio Vista, California.

Another objection is that California Forever will abut Travis Air Force Base, purportedly creating a national security threat. But areas near the northeastern edge of the base are already built up, and concerns about security have yet to make news. This objection might also come as a surprise to residents of San Diego, many of whom live within walking distance of the city’s naval facilities. Similarly, Colorado Springs residents live near Peterson Space Force Base, and Tacoma residents are close to the gates of Joint Base Lewis‐​McChord. Indeed, the Pentagon itself is located near a neighborhood of 8,200 residents and 300,000 square feet of retail space.

There are further concerns about the stealthy way in which California Forever acquired its real estate portfolio and the wealth of its investors. But if the group went public at the beginning, its acquisition costs would have been much higher. There is no evidence that sellers received less than market value for their land, which is all they could reasonably expect. But news that the investment group sued landowners for trying to collectively negotiate was disappointing.

Just as California Forever’s investment group has the right to buy land at a price acceptable to sellers, those sellers should be free to work together during the negotiating process.

Projects by the ultra‐​rich have been both good and bad. Among the lasting and well‐​regarded contributions of the super‐​rich are the New York Public Library (from Jacob Astor), Stanford University (Leland Stanford), and Public Broadcasting (initially funded by the Ford Foundation).

There is no guarantee that billionaires’ efforts will succeed. They can be frustrated by personal vanity, poor execution, or simply bad luck. The same can be said for efforts to start new cities. Sponsors need only look a few hundred miles south for a cautionary tale. California City, an intentional community in Kern County initially conceived in the late 1950s, has proven to be a spectacular failure. Fewer than 15,000 residents are scattered across the city’s 204 square miles, and most of the roads in its master plan were never paved.

A far more successful master‐​planned California city is Irvine. Incorporated in 1971 and built on former ranchland, the city now ranks among the top ten best places to live in the United States, according to Niche. Irvine continues to gain population in the midst of a general downtrend across most of California.

Only time will tell whether California Forever will be allowed to move forward and whether it will succeed. In any case, its ballot initiative campaign will shine a light on the adverse impacts of land use restrictions.

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