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For now, it's a city only in his eyes

He's never built a thing, but W. Quay Hays aims to turn 12,000 acres of San Joaquin Valley dirt into a utopia.

March 26, 2007|Gary Polakovic | Times Staff Writer

Standing in an empty field in southern Kings County facing the horizon, W. Quay Hays enthusiastically surveys the land -- stark and featureless except for two newly planted redwood trees.

This desolate patch of San Joaquin Valley real estate along Interstate 5 is the spot Hays has chosen to pursue his vision for a new city: a utopia of 150,000 people living in a solar-powered, self-contained community rising from the dirt flats about 50 miles north of Bakersfield.

"This is perfect," says Hays, a Pacific Palisades entrepreneur turned developer. "It's halfway between two world-class cities in San Francisco and Los Angeles. It's beside a major highway, it has power lines, and the land" is cheap.

Even in a state built on big development dreams, Hays' proposed Quay Valley Ranch project boggles the mind. It would be built from scratch on 12,000 acres stretching about five miles along the interstate, just north of the Kern County line.

About 50,000 houses and condominiums would be constructed in a village-like matrix with parks, offices and retail centers, and anchored by four "town centers." Houses would be equipped with "smart technology" and new energy-efficient building materials.

No one would pay electric bills because solar power -- including three 100-acre solar arrays -- would produce 600 megawatts of power, enough to supply the city and export power to Pacific Gas & Electric Co. for use elsewhere in California.

People could commute to jobs via water taxi, plying a 300-foot-wide stream meandering about eight miles through groves and neighborhoods. The community would include a theme park, a convention center, a racetrack, an auto mall, industrial land, farms, houses, schools and a medical center.

Hays' Kings County Ventures LLC submitted a development application in October and plans to deliver a more detailed proposal next month. The project would be built in phases over 25 years, financed largely by commercial and residential developers working as partners and paying as they go.

Costs could reach $25 billion. Hays said building could begin as early as next year, though officials say that seems ambitious for such a large-scale project that is likely to face strong opposition from environmentalists and others concerned about increased traffic and pollution in the smoggy valley.

Carol Whiteside, president of the Great Valley Center, a think tank in Modesto, said such massive "leapfrog" development would only create more sprawl in the San Joaquin Valley, expected to grow from 4 million residents today to more than 5.4 million in 2025. She said new development should be concentrated in or near metropolitan areas, such as Fresno and Bakersfield.

"The issue for the valley is, what's the strategy for growth? Are we going to build in existing cities or make new cities?" Whiteside said. "We try to do everything at once, we get stalled and the result is we get lots of suburban cities and not much sustaining economic center."

But Hays is undeterred. He says that what he wants to create is different, a self-sufficient and environmentally sensitive city, one that manages its own water, provides its own electricity and generates its own jobs.

"I want to see if we can reinvent the way development is done," Hays says. "If we can, we will blaze a path for everyone who comes after us. A town like this has to happen in California."

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Challenges loom

Much of California and the West is built on grandiose dreams of outsized development. Hays is just the latest visionary.

In Southern California, Los Angeles-area growth is increasingly spreading north into canyon lands, over the Tehachapi Mountains and into the San Joaquin Valley. Each of those projects has drawn intense opposition from environmentalists.

Newhall Land and Farming Co.'s plan to build a 20,000-home development north of Santa Clarita was stalled by a lawsuit over water rights and other issues. The company has modified its plan, won some court battles and plans to begin building the first phase in 2009.

Farther north, on Tejon Ranch, 23,000 new homes are proposed for a new town called Centennial, near the junction of I-5 and California 138. An additional 3,450 estate homes and a resort and golf course called Tejon Mountain Village are planned near Lebec. Environmentalists argue that the two projects imperil wilderness and the California condor, an endangered species.

John M. Quigley, director of the Housing and Urban Policy program at UC Berkeley, said the task of building a new city is daunting. He said such projects are rare and tend to work when sustained by abundant natural resources or when built next to existing urban centers.

"There was a time about 25 years ago when a lot of attention was paid to building new cities in the United States, but most of them did not succeed," Quigley said. "It's difficult to pull off because the logistical and coordination aspects are enormous and the capital costs are huge. If I were an investor, I'd look at this very carefully."

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