Sunday, January 28, 2007

Fairfield's first premier address -- Rancho Solano looks back at 20 years

Printed on: Sun, Jan 28, 2007

Fairfield's first premier address -- Rancho Solano looks back at 20 years
By Barry Eberling

FAIRFIELD - Fairfield planners about 20 years ago envisioned Rancho Solano as a type of pioneering community for the area.

It was designed to be a first for the city in many ways - the first neighborhood with a golf course, the first with gated streets, the first with homes of a quality that might tempt executives and people of similar ilk to live in Fairfield, rather than flee to fancier surroundings.

These days, Rancho Solano has competition as Fairfield's premiere address from newer developments. It's experienced a few rough spots over the years, such as landslides that threatened some homes. It once was at the center of the area's growth wars.

Yet Rancho Solano has delivered for many who live in its nearly 1,200 homes along streets named after Pebble Beach, St. Andrews, Winged Foot and other famous golf courses. Residents include not only those climbing the corporate ladder, but people who already lived in Fairfield and wanted to move up to a bigger, more expensive house.

"I've watched it grow up," said Denise Kirchubel, a resident there since 1991. "And I've watched it go through its growing pains."

Kirchubel called Rancho Solano her favorite neighborhood. It offers a level of living style that's attractive to the corporate environment and contributes to the city's tax base, she said.

Gary Falati was mayor when Fairfield put Rancho Solano on the drawing boards in the mid- and late-1980s. Today, he's happy with the results, saying the community filled a housing niche for Fairfield.

"We were trying to build a project that would stand the test of time," Falati said. "Every year, with the landscaping and trees going in, it gets more beautiful. I think it came out very, very nice."

Two decades ago, Solano County had few upscale housing developments, apart from upper Green Valley in the rural county. Rancho Solano came before Fairfield built Paradise Valley or Eastridge. It came before Vallejo built Hiddenbrooke.

A different kind of place

Data from the U.S. Census 2000 - the latest available with details for individual neighborhoods - shows Rancho Solano indeed stands apart from Fairfield as a whole.

About 63 percent of Fairfield homes that year were owner-occupied and 37 percent were rentals. The average Fairfield house cost $191,000 and had six rooms.

Meanwhile, about 93 percent of Rancho Solano homes were owner-occupied and 7 percent were rentals. The average Rancho house cost $319,000 and had eight rooms.

Today, homes in Rancho Solano cost from about $535,000 for a smaller, single-story home to $1.6 million for a custom home, Kirchubel said. The sheer pricing makes it executive housing, but Rancho Solano has a nice mix of retired people, young families and people in-between, she said.

Michael Ammann, president of the Solano Economic Development Corp., sees Rancho Solano and the upscale communities that followed in its wake as assets for attracting businesses to the area.

"We certainly have more opportunities now throughout the county as far as executive housing," Ammann said. "It's not as much of an issue as when (Rancho) was conceived and built."

Ammann also put things in perspective. There are other priorities for prospective businesses than executive housing, such as a skilled labor force and the availability of buildings or building sites, he said.

As a Realtor, Kirchubel has an idea of the type of people who buy homes at Rancho Solano. Usually, it's someone looking to move to a bigger house in a neighborhood with rules requiring residents to maintain a certain, aesthetic level for their homes and yards, she said.

"They are people looking for a comfortable neighborhood to live in where they feel secure," Kirchubel said.

Homeowners must follow community rules. For example, landscaping must meet guidelines designed to give neighborhoods a cohesive look. Trees cannot block views, fences are to be unpainted and the majority of a front yard should be grass or ground cover. Garage doors are to remain closed unless someone is moving a car or working in the garage.

What draws people there

The Kirchubels came to Rancho Solano in 1991 as first-time home buyers escaping the high housing prices in Marin County. They had looked at a house in American Canyon, then learned of a deal in Rancho Solano with special, down payment assistance.

"We'd been the up-and-comers," Kirchubel said. "We were the typical yuppies with the suddenly higher income and not much savings."

She liked the well-constructed homes in Rancho Solano and a community spirit that had neighbors helping each other landscape their yards.

Dale Baumler moved to Rancho Solano in 1990 and in 1993 retired from a U.S. Air Force career that at one point had him commanding the U.S. Air Force Reserve 349th Air Mobility Wing at Travis Force Base. He liked the style of the homes, the Rancho Solano country club and the look of a community with 1,400 acres of open space.

"The setting was, as it is today, beautiful," Baumler said. "It's was just a tremendously beautiful community. Just the way it was situated. And then the privacy."

Plus, there's the Rancho Solano golf course, perfect for an avid golfer - though Baumler laughingly said his golf game doesn't qualify him for that title.

Birth of a big project

But Rancho Solano had a painful birth. Landowner William Lee Smith in the early 1980s interested Solano County in building 850 homes on 2,284 acres of his ranch. Homes would be on lots of a half-acre to 10 acres, with much of the land left for open space and cattle grazing. The development would have an equestrian center.

Rancho Solano, along with the proposed city of Manzanita, spurred the Proposition A ballot measure. Opponents saw the developments as unleashing sprawl growth on farms and ranches. Proposition A passed in 1984, barring most development on rural land unless annexed by a city.

Falati was among those wary about Rancho Solano as proposed by the county. The development would have had a lagoon to treat sewage, something the city didn't want near its borders.

In 1985, Fairfield took over the project and annexed the land. The new Rancho Solano would have smaller lots and no sewage lagoon. It would have a public golf course, something Fairfield had sought for several decades.

But the growth wars continued. Some residents filed a lawsuit to stop what they saw as the sprawl growth of Rancho Solano, Rolling Hills and Paradise Valley. The city settled in 1986, agreeing that assessments on the new homes would help create the Solano County Farmlands and Open Space Foundation - today, the Solano Land Trust - to preserve open space.

Rancho Solano sold its first homes in the late 1980s and the golf course opened in March 1990. The new community proved a hit, with people lining up to buy homes.

"The only constraint we've seen to construction and the sale of homes is the pace we can build at," said Robert Lando, the attorney for Rancho Solano, during 1989.

Most buyers were Fairfield residents who wanted a bigger home, he added.

Not always paradise

Rancho Solano soon hit some rough spots. Mudslides threatened several homes after heavy rains in 1993. Spas in the privately owned health club - planned as a jewel of the development - were shut down by the county in 1995 because of bacteria.

These issues have been resolved, said Baumler, who is president of the Rancho Solano Master Association homeowners group. For example, the association in 1999 settled the lawsuit over the landslides, getting $5.4 million to use for landslide repairs. It still has a committee to monitor the situation.

And, Baumler said, problems with the club were resolved after area resident Billy Yarbrough bought it in 2000 and brought in the Millennium Sports Club.

The development didn't grow as fast as originally planned, despite the initial torrid sales. Rancho Solano was to be completely built by 1995. Eleven years later, the community is almost finished, but still has some homes to be constructed. National housing market slowdowns affected Rancho Solano.

Rancho Solano has been criticized by some as being a world apart. But society's problems still occasionally creep into its various gated neighborhoods. For example, vandals have done such things as egg cars and drive cars into the street gates, which close at nights.

Whether the culprits live at Rancho Solano or elsewhere is unclear. In one case when the vandals got caught, they lived elsewhere. The homeowners group wants to install an informational kiosk with a security camera near the Rancho Solano entrance, in part to deter vandalism.

But if Rancho Solano can't escape all of the world's problems, it remains a paradise for many of its residents.

"It has been a real good experience and I think the planners did a super job," Baumler said. "I would say it's been a tremendous success."

Falati expressed doubt that Fairfield will ever get another Rancho Solano, given present city growth policies. Those policies favor steering growth into existing city boundaries and reject large expansions onto farms and ranches.

Reach Barry Eberling at 425-4646 Ext. 232 or at

Big dates for Rancho Solano

1986 - Fairfield and Rancho Solano opponents settle lawsuit filed to stop the project.

February 1989 - Rancho Solano developers say the initial homes are selling briskly.

March 1990 - The $9.2 million Rancho Solano golf course opens, fulfilling a decades-old city dream to have a public golf course.

July 1990 - B. Gale Wilson Elementary School near Rancho Solano Parkway opens.

1992 and 1993 - The Rancho Solano club hosts the $50,000 U.S. Tennis Association Challenger Series, attracting big-name pros.

Early 1993 - Huge storms trigger a landslide that threatens two homes on Formby Drive. More than 30 landslides around the development later come to light, triggering litigation between homeowners and the developer.

September 1998 - Rancho Solano's privately owned, long-troubled fitness-and-tennis club, initially targeted to be a community jewel, closes after a foreclosure sale.

August 1999 - Rancho Solano developers and homeowners reach settlement over landslides, with homeowners association getting $5.4 million for remediation work.

September 2000 - Local resident Billy Yarbrough buys the health-and-fitness club. It reopens as the Millennium Sports Club.

October 2004 - Rancho Solano residents convince City Council to allow 100-foot-tall telecommunication tower to improve cellular phone service in community.
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