FAIRFIELD — Central and southern Solano County cities 25 years ago agreed they didn’t want to grow into a Los Angeles-like blur of homes, stores, businesses and industries.
They decided to establish distinct areas of open space between their boundaries. The line between the cities wouldn’t end up being just another crowded city street.
A quarter-century later, this vision still holds. The greenbelt between Fairfield and Vacaville and the Tri-City greenbelt separating Fairfield, Benicia and Vallejo remain undeveloped.
Today’s local city councils seldom debate whether greenbelts should remain. The greenbelts have become part of the landscape, preserving areas with grassy fields, cattle and oaks.
But whether everything has gone as planned over the past 25 years and whether greenbelts are good policy – those are still matters for debate.
Fairfield resident John Takeuchi in 1990 was chairman of the Fairfield Vision 2020 Open Space Task Force. The group’s report called for establishing both the Fairfield-Vacaville and the Tri-City greenbelts.
Takeuchi still lives in Fairfield and still supports having greenbelts.
“I grew up in LA after the war,” Takeuchi said. “Monterey Park was essentially its own community outside of LA. Even Alhambra had a bit of open space between that and Los Angeles. And Baldwin Park was out in the country, for crying out loud.”
He saw how things changed in the Los Angeles area. Takeuchi wants Solano County to avoid this fate. Otherwise, he said, an area becomes a megalopolis that loses any trace of small-town individualism.
Fairfield resident Duane Kromm also participated in the various citizens committees that helped form the greenbelts. He later served as county supervisor from 1998 to 2006.
Greenbelts smooth out traffic along busy roadways, since motorists driving through the greenbelt don’t face traffic entering and leaving, Kromm said. They preserve trees that take carbon out of the air, he said.
And greenbelts force city planners to work within a certain footprint, instead of simply allowing growth to expand outward, Kromm said. That helps planners design communities with more efficient urban services such as mass transit and more walkable neighborhoods, he said.
Fairfield resident Robert Lando worked on various Fairfield housing developments in the early 1990s, included those proposed near the Fairfield-Vacaville greenbelt. He has a different view on cities establishing greenbelts and proclaiming land is permanently off-limits to development.
“It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be,” Lando said. “I think there’s still a real danger in city councils assuming they know more and are better at planning the future of their communities than future city councils.”
Local communities already face many growth limitations, from the Endangered Species Act to laws concerning wetlands to the presence of Travis Air Force Base to geological and geographical limitations that may not yet be known, Lando said. The greenbelts are one more limitation, he said.
The greenbelts got established amid a different growth climate than today. Solano County had just ended what remains its biggest growth decade, adding 105,218 people during the 1980s.
New subdivisions popped up quickly in those days. Local growth wars raged amid those who favored development to provide more housing and those who wanted to preserve open space. Disagreement spilled from the city council chambers into the courtrooms.
By comparison, the county during the 2000s added 18,802 residents. New subdivisions these days are few and far between.
Whether a reviving economy will return Solano County to its growth glory days remains to be seen. But whatever the growth issues of the future, the greenbelts will likely be part of the equation.
Fairfield and Vacaville during the 1980s seemed to be competing to see which city could annex what land before the other got there first. Fairfield annexed Paradise Valley in 1985. Vacaville annexed Lagoon Valley in 1991, though its development plans there have yet to come to fruition.
Those moves brought the two city borders along Interstate 80 within about a half-mile of each other. The cities also had emerging growth plans for their east sides along Peabody Road.
At the same time, they began to look for a truce in the growth competition. In May 1989, the Fairfield and Vacaville city councils passed resolutions that started planning for a greenbelt. In essence, they would agree not to annex land within the greenbelt boundaries, keeping the land rural.
Then came studies and, in 1994, public hearings. Some landowners in the proposed greenbelt said the two cities were setting aside their land as open space without compensating them, trashing private property rights.
In fall of 1994, Fairfield, Vacaville and Solano County teamed up to form the Vacaville Fairfield Solano Greenbelt Authority. The agencies agreed that 2,252 acres would remain undeveloped.
The strip of land between the two cities would range from a half-mile to 2 miles wide. It would start at I-80 in the hills south of Lagoon Valley and extend eastward past Peabody Road to the Cypress Lakes Golf Course and east of Travis Air Force Base.
Takeuchi sees a flaw with the Fairfield-Vacaville greenbelt. The land has yet to be preserved as open space with conservation easements. Conservation easements allow private property owners to sell development rights on their land while still retaining ownership.
Development was supposed to pay fees to preserve open space, Takeuchi said. But 25 years later, there is no permanent greenbelt, he said.
“Everything is still in play, as far as I can tell,” he said.
He also expressed disappointment that Fairfield in 2011 worked with Vacaville and Solano County to modify greenbelt boundaries.
Fairfield wanted to accommodate its planned train station development with up to 6,000 homes and new shops, parks and businesses. Environmentally sensitive land with rare species went into the greenbelt and land more easily developed came out. The greenbelt grew by 400 acres, but the shape became irregular and the land separating the two cities became narrower at some points.
Lando sees those changes to the greenbelt as a good sign, a sign of needed flexibility.
“In that case, the system worked pretty darn well,” Lando said.
Still, he sees reasons for caution.
“In the past, Fairfield and Vacaville feuded or they may have councils with quite different views on growth,” Lando said. “That type of cooperation may not be available in the future.”
At one point, the hills separating Fairfield, Vallejo and Benicia looked ripe at least for some development.
Property owners targeted Lynch Canyon between Fairfield and Vallejo, first for a dump and then for subdivisions that would be part of Vallejo. The late Juanita Schiel of Cordelia Villages organized a successful petition drive in the mid-1980s to scuttle the dump proposal.
Vallejo in the early 1990s allowed the golf course community of Hiddenbrooke to be built in a valley in the hills. Fairfield and Benicia considered whether to push forward with developments of their own, before the other city could annex the land.
These hills are landslide country and home to rare species such as the Callippe silverspot butterfly that are protected by the Endangered Species Act. They also have stunning views of the Bay Area to the west and Suisun Marsh and Central Valley to the east and are along Interstate 80 and Interstate 680. Amid the development constraints is the one thing that real estate agents tout – location, location, location.
Fairfield, Vallejo and Benicia decided to go in a different direction than development. In 1992, they agreed that none of them would annex 10,000 acres separating their borders. In 1994, they passed the Tri-City and County Cooperative Plan.
“That changed the dynamics in those hills,” said Kromm, who served on a citizens committee for the plan.
The Tri-City proposals sketched a proposed vision for the hills. Parts of the area were to become parks with camping, fishing and other recreational opportunities offered at six locations with names such as Lynch Canyon, King Ranch, Paddy Creek Valley and Lopes Road Valley. A map from the era shows trails linking these recreation centers.
But the Tri-City area under these proposals was to be more than a playground for city-dwellers. It was also to have continued agricultural use, such as ranching. Wind turbines might be allowed, a nod to Pacific, Gas and Electric Co. and Santa Clara, which owned land in the hills just for that purpose.
Today, at least some of the dream has come true. The Solano Land Trust in phases during the mid-1990s bought 1,039-acre Lynch Canyon, which is open three days a week as a park run by the county.
The Land Trust in 2002 bought the 1,575-acre King Ranch and in 2005 the 2,270-acre Swett ranches. It allows hiking on those properties only on docent-led outings.
One thing that has yet to happen is for the county to get an open space district with funding to run the King and Swett ranches as parks. The idea has been discussed by local elected officials at times, but has never come to fruition.
When open space is opened to the public, volunteers come in droves to help out, Kromm said. But parks also need rangers and other things that cost money.
“That for me is still the big challenge in front of our communities,” Kromm said.
Meanwhile, ranching continues in these hills on private property.
Al Guyan in 1994 expressed concern about the county and cities putting his 216 acres into the Tri-City area. He had no plans to develop the land where he was born, but said he saw no advantages to being in the greenbelt. Nor did he want trails bringing people to the area, where they could throw rocks and cause other trouble.
Twenty-five years later, Guyan is uncertain whether his land is actually in or out of the Tri-City area – as it turns out, it is within the boundaries, though on the edge. He said the greenbelt hasn’t affected what he wants to do to this point. He rents his land out for cattle grazing.
“No one gives me any static, which is what I want,” Guyan said.
For now, further development remains at bay within the Tri-City area. The Tri-City and County Cooperative Planning Group still meets to discuss the greenbelt, though it now goes by the name of Solano Open Space.
Meanwhile, Solano County has seen more greenbelts established since that initial push a quarter century ago. Vacaville worked with Dixon in the mid-1990s to establish an open space buffer between their borders along Interstate 80. Dixon and Davis in the mid-2000s worked to do the same.
After 25 years, the greenbelt effort in Solano County remains active.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.