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Fairfield was established in 1856 as a healthier alternative to the marshy but commercially busier Suisun City. Captain William Waterman and his wife Cordelia were the founders. Captain Waterman was a famous and prosperous ship captain who had established a speed record from New York to Canton, China, in the clipper ship Sea Witch. He made Fairfield the seat of Solano County, an agricultural county that fed the gold and silver mining industries in the Sierras.
During World War II Fairfield attracted an air base because of its constant west winds, adding a growth spurt to the little agricultural town.
After the national highway system cut though the city and county in the early 1960s, commuters began to move in, motivated by low cost housing and cheap gasoline.
By the mid-1960s, Fairfield’s subdivisions grew right up to the new highway, I-80, ending any chance of having a large highway-commercial district that might attract highway traffic and the sales tax revenue it could bring. Vacaville didn’t make that mistake.
It was discovered that military bases could be located inside cities, so the city decided to annex Travis AFB in 1966. The annexation didn’t affect either the base or the city much, but the growth-oriented city leaders could watch the city grow on a map.
Fairfield was a housing developer’s town. The town’s administration claimed informally that “Fairfield must grow or die,” a slogan that wasn’t challenged. Rapid growth was the big thing.
Then the grazing land adjacent to I-680 attracted the eye of a big developer. He envisioned a community of country-living commuters, attracted by inexpensive housing and anchored with a zoo, complete with giraffes! He assembled a panel of fellow big developers and asked if this might be a good project. The reply, eagerly covered in local newspapers, was an unsurprising “Yes!”
Cordelia, The First Case Of Leapfrog Development
But questions arose. Cordelia, as it was to be called, was far from Fairfield. How could it be annexed? It was decided to annex it to the city via a cherry stem along the California Northern railroad track. It was proposed that improvements be paid for using California’s Redevelopment law, although redevelopment was meant to eradicate “urban blight,” while this area was pastureland. Nevertheless, Cordelia was annexed in 1971 as a redevelopment project and the subdivision giant, Seeno, began to build. Around the state, political leaders looked on in amazement. Fairfield had a powerful city manager at this time – B. Gale Wilson. He wanted Fairfield to grow.
But problems emerged. Residents of Cordelia complained about the driving required to find groceries, gasoline, dry cleaners, coffee shops, and so on. Police and fire response times were slow. Many Cordelians grew angry and talked of secession and creating their own town but Cordelia was far too small for that.
Cordelia was an example of “leapfrog development.” Conventional city planning taught that a city should grow out from its center, planning for streets, water, and sewer capacities as it went. Police and fire services would be relatively close and schools and parks would be logically placed near residential areas. Commercial and industrial areas would also be located strategically. This would all be laid out in a city’s General Plan.
But leapfrog development was an irresistible temptation for private developers who didn’t think much about city plans. Farmland far from the city was cheap and turning it into city-density housing was extremely lucrative. Of course, the city council had to agree to annex the leapfrog.
Leapfrogs broke good city planning practices because of the expense of connecting those far-away areas with schools, streets, sewer, water, police and fire services.
Purchasers of leapfrog developments were pleased with the lower cost of houses, but after months of residency often realized the drawbacks.
Commercial services such as gas, food and other retail uses were usually lacking, at least at first, in such developments. Often home-town residents’ sales dollars went to other cities near residents’ places of work, depriving their city of those important revenues.
The ‘80s – Another Leapfrog Development
In 1978 state Proposition 13 cut property taxes by about 67%, depriving cities and school districts of critical amounts of revenue. Schools would begin to be funded by the state and the property taxes of new residential growth no longer paid for the infrastructure and services required by new hones, meaning fees would have to be assessed for public improvements associated with its growth. Sales taxes became a high priority for cities. Cities receive 1% from every dollar of sales in California.
Then in the 1980s a local developer found another leapfrog possibility far out on the northeast side of town on Peabody Road. He purchased a farm and his friends on the city council approved it. Houses were reasonably priced at the Goldridge development and buyers flocked in. The nearest gas, food, and retail, however, were located in Vacaville and there were traffic jams commuting to jobs and schools on the undersized roads. Police and fire response times were slow.
Fairfield was becoming noted for inexpensive housing aimed at Travis AFB personnel and commuters. The City Council began encouraging higher-priced housing. The result was Paradise Valley at the northern limit of the city and Rancho Solano west of I-80, both with fine executive-quality golf courses owned by the city. Eastridge in Lower Green Valley was added, adjacent to Rockville Hills City Park. The newer west side of Fairfield was generally wealthier than the older east side.
The Growth Wars Begin
Then the Goldridge developer planned a subdivision near the Travis AFB runway and had it placed in the General Plan in 1995 by friends on the City Council. It was called, perhaps ironically, “The Travis Protection Plan.” In protest, veterans and citizens in Fairfield united, offering a citizens’ ballot initiative in 1997 to move the city’s Urban Limit Line (ULL) away from the base. The watchword was “encroachment” which is a threat to any military installation. The initiative lost by a narrow margin - around 65 votes.
Two years later, 1999, the developer, alarmed that he might lose his entitlements to develop his land near the base by more citizen activism in the future, qualified a citizens’ ballot initiative named “The Greenbelt Initiative” for the November election. This would legally entitle housing near Travis and, on the other side of the city, it would move the Urban Limit Line out to include Middle Green Valley, much of which had been purchased for development in anticipation of annexation. A vigorous resistance developed that dubbed the initiative “The Growthbelt Initiative”. It failed by a margin of 9 to 1. Citizens rejected the threats to Travis AFB and to the agriculture of Middle Green Valley.
Also in November, 1999, a controlled-growth majority was elected to the City Council against the strenuous wishes of the local real estate community and Chamber of Commerce.
A city’s General Plan is updated every 20 years, so the 2002 update eliminated the Travis Protection Plan and pulled the ULL away from the base while keeping it at the city's edge of Lower Green Valley.
The key clause the new city council placed in the Fairfield General Plan is Policy LU 3.1 “What is urban shall be municipal, and what is rural shall be within the County. Any urban development requiring basic municipal services shall occur only within the incorporated City and within the urban limit line established by the General Plan.” (Emphasis ours.)
Measure L Gives Voters Power
In the election of 2003 a citizens’ ballot initiative, Measure L, was overwhelmingly approved by the voters (60%) that made any movement of the Urban Limit Line (leading to annexations to the city) subject to a city-wide vote of the citizens.
This was generally considered to be the end of the so-called “Land Use Wars” in Fairfield, which began with the creation of the Travis Protection Plan of 1995, the citizens’ initiative of 1997, and the Greenbelt Initiative of 1999, the election of a controlled-growth city council, and finally, Measure L in 2003.
Land use and growth concerns dropped from the general view of the public after 2003 in reaction to the settlement made by Measure L.
Helping Suisun Valley Thrive
One of the other areas of discussion associated with this period was protection of agriculture in Suisun and Green Valleys. It was generally accepted that those county areas represented a quality of life asset to the city and region.
Suisun Valley agriculture was struggling and the city’s water contract with the Solano Irrigation District (SID) that supplied water from Lake Berryessa was soon to expire. It included a clause that stated that SID water in the valley could not be used for housing, but struggling growers had made it clear that that clause would not be renewed, raising the specter of residential development in the valley.
So in 2003 the city and the Solano Irrigation District each agreed to contribute $100,000 yearly for seven years to set up a Suisun Valley Committee to assist growers in marketing their produce to assure the long-term viability of local agriculture and discourage urban development. The effort was successful, and today Suisun Valley growers continue to experience prosperity. Residential growth there seems not to be an issue.
Challenges to Measure L
There have been two challenges to Measure L’s ULL. One was a petition of the Pacific Flyway Center to annex land east of I-680 and south of Goldhill Road for a multi-million dollar migratory bird interpretation center that was sponsored by Kenneth Hoffmann who had been a prominent local builder. It was easily approved by the voters of Fairfield in the election of 2018.
The other test came from a developer who wanted to purchase water from the Solano Irrigation District and use the City of Fairfield purification and transmission systems to deliver the water to a proposed subdivision, Woodcreek 66, located on Suisun Valley Road near Rockville Corners outside the city but within Solano County. The challenge came through the Environmental Impact Report required by Solano County. The Solano County Orderly Growth Committee sued and prevailed. The judge found that Fairfield’s Measure L prevented providing services outside the ULL until it expired on Dec. 31, 2020.
Measure L was to expire at the end of the year 2020. So on July 21, 2020, the Orderly Growth Committee asked the Fairfield City Council to place a short term extension of Measure L on the November ballot. The extension would last until the new General Plan update, soon to be initiated by the city, would be approved in two to three years. The council voted 5-0 not to extend the protections of Measure L.
However, the City Council did approve an ordinance in September, 2020, that forbids annexations to Fairfield until the completion of the new General Plan. It did not include extensions of services, however. Nevertheless, without Measure L the city council can annex land with a four-councilmember majority (out of seven councilmembers) since the no-annexation ordinance was passed by a simple majority of the council and thus can be reversed by a simple majority of the council. Likewise, city services can be extended outside the city since the new ordinance did not forbid it.
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