Sunday, February 18, 2007

Will Solano County someday add another city?

Printed on: Sun, Feb 18, 2007

Will Solano County someday add another city? -- Restrictions, growth could put controversial topic on table
By Barry Eberling

FAIRFIELD - Solano County got its seventh and last city back in 1903, when Fairfield incorporated after some 50 years of existence as a town.

Fairfield, Suisun City, Vacaville, Benicia, Dixon, Vallejo and Rio Vista - that's been the unchanging lineup for more than a century. Many other fast-growing counties have added cities, but not Solano County.

County Supervisor Mike Reagan is willing to entertain the idea of an eighth city someday emerging. He doesn't see the need for several decades. But, with the county revising its General Plan, he's thinking ahead.

"It's just a matter of math," Reagan said.

For Reagan, the math starts with Fairfield and Benicia having voter-approved growth boundaries, Vacaville considering them and Vallejo and Suisun City being largely landlocked. Meanwhile, the Association of Bay Area Governments predicts people will keep coming to Solano County. Reagan doesn't see Dixon and Rio Vista someday wanting to bear the full growth burden.

To Bob Berman, who helped champion the county's orderly growth laws that originated in 1984, the idea of imagining an eighth city is premature. He thinks existing cities can handle future population increases for the foreseeable future.

"In a certain sense, it means changing the way we grow, as far as higher densities and more compact growth," Berman said. "The existing cities already have quite a lot of vacant land available to accommodate growth. That's where we look."

Reagan has a different philosophy on growth.

"The likelihood of people accepting being herded into stacked flats - people don't get herded very well," he said.

Fairfield City Councilman Jack Batson agreed with Berman that cities should grow up, not out. Five-story condominiums could someday be a new niche to the city's housing stock, he said.

But he can also envision the day Solano County someday gets an eighth city and said the idea is worth close study. He sees that as being consistent with his philosophy that existing cities such as Fairfield and Vacaville won't keep growing indefinitely.

"I certainly don't want to run the cities together," Batson said. "I don't want to 'Los Angelize' the place."

Also, Fairfield cannot become the type of pedestrian-friendly city where a large number of people walk instead of drive, not with 90 percent of its footprint already built, Batson said.

"If you design a city from the ground up, maybe you can do some of those things that are so neat," he said.

For now, Solano County's possible eighth city remains firmly entrenched in the "what if" category. But growth choices made today - including whether to favor compact growth and where to build roads - will help shape that future.

How cities start

California as a whole has kept adding cities regularly throughout its 156-year history. It added at least 15 since 1990, bringing its total to 478.

Often a city forms as American Canyon in Napa County did in 1992. The community grows up in the unincorporated county. At some point, citizens decide they want their fate controlled by a city council, rather than the county board of supervisors.

Solano County has few candidates to become its next major city by going this route. None of its tiny towns is ideal: Collinsville and Birds Landing are remote, Cordelia is almost surrounded by Fairfield and Elmira residents talk of keeping nearby Vacaville at bay, rather than going on a growth spurt.

Another way to create a new city is by starting from scratch, with a plan.

That happened with Irvine in Orange County. The Irvine Co. in the 1960s decided to develop part of its 150-square-mile ranch that stretched from the ocean into the foothills. Planners drew up a master plan that included the University of California, Irvine, residential neighborhoods, industrial and business areas and parks and greenbelts.

The Irvine Co. built several subdivisions in the unincorporated county and the new residents in 1971 voted to become a city. Today, Irvine is home to about 134,000 people and covers 43 square miles.

Solano's past proposed master-planned cities

Solano County has had proposals for master-planned cities, though none panned out.

Perhaps the grandest dates back to 1913. San Francisco street car magnate John Calhoun decided to build a metropolis called Solano City near what is now Travis Air Force Base. He'd then planned to make a financial killing by extending his company's rail system to the site.

Calhoun and other San Francisco business giants reportedly gained control of 150,000 acres for their project. Designer Mark Daniels said the city would be only the second in America that had been master planned from start to finish. He based his design on Washington D.C. and Boston, creating a circle with eight major roads radiating from the civic center at the hub.

"If the plan is adhered to - and I believe it will be - Solano will be one of the most beautiful cities in America," Daniels said.

But Solano City turned out to be more of a money-making scheme than anything else. Soon the venture went bust. The backers bought land for the city, failed to pay for all of it, yet still sold the land to others. More than 300 creditors battled to get their money back from the bankrupt undertaking.

Calhoun, though, walked away relatively unscathed and made a fortune on oil in the San Joaquin Valley.

Another proposed, master-planned Solano County community was called Manzanita. San Francisco businessman Hiram Woo in the early 1980s wanted to build it on cow pastures along Interstate 505 between Vacaville and Winters.

Manzanita designers envisioned an unconventional community. Homes would be in clusters with community centers and would use solar power. People going for walks would use overpasses and underpasses so they never had to cross streets. A forest would be planted to surround the city.

But Manzanita ignited Solano County's orderly growth movement, which sought to keep growth in the existing seven cities. Voters in 1984 passed Proposition A, which stated most rural land cannot be developed unless annexed by a city. Opponents saw Manzanita-type ventures as turning the region into a sprawl of development and hurting agriculture.

City-centered growth has remained the rule in Solano County ever since. The orderly growth law lasts through 2010, when it expires.

Where to fit a new city?

Should Solano County someday want to contemplate creating a new city from scratch, it would seem to have limited choices. The obvious location - somewhere along Interstate 80, the region's major road - is out. Vallejo, Fairfield, Vacaville and Dixon have already taken up most of the available frontage.

A new city would ideally be near a freeway or highway. It would have to be away from Travis Air Force Base flight patterns and vernal pools that are home to rare creatures protected by environmental laws - requirements that rule out the old Solano City site. It would likely be steered away from the best agricultural soils. It would have to be some distance from existing cities, who wouldn't want new development on their doorsteps.

When all is said and done, the area around the old Manzanita site along I-505 remains a contender, given the freeway access. But previous talk of a city there fueled Solano County's growth wars a quarter century ago.

Reagan believes in city-centered development - he just thinks Solano County might need an eighth city to continue that tradition, he said.

Berman believes in city-centered development - only he means development in Solano County's existing seven cities, with it premature to start contemplating additional cities, he said.

A future generation will likely make the final decisions. But decisions by today's generation on how the county grows could start laying the groundwork.

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

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