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River Islands’ epic 24-year journey to build the first home

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POSTED June 13, 2013 11:43 p.m.

The folks who run the 157-year-old 5omerset Holdings have the patience of Job.

Superlatives can’t describe the 24-year struggle they have endured to bring River Islands at Lathrop from conception to the point hammers will fill the air on Stewart Tract this fall when construction starts on the first of 11,000 homes.

Large earth movers are now grading the site of the first 500 homes on the 4,800- acre tract that once grew watermelons and pumpkins.

To date, Somerset through its wholly owned subsidiary Cambay Group has invested more than $250 million in the project. They were ready to start building in 2006, but then the recession hit. They had just spent close to a decade pursuing federal and state permits regarding flood protection before coming up with an innovative solution that puts what work the Army Corps of Engineers does to shame. Their solution was to create “super levees” without disturbing the exiting levees that required a battery of nearly two dozen state and federal water-related permits controlled by different government agencies. After they had secured some of them and realized they’d probably expire before they got the rest of the permits needed and therefore be put in perpetual regulatory hell, Cambay Group came up with an innovative solution.

They built parallel dry levees and filled in dirt between the new dry levees and existing levees under the jurisdiction of the state and federal governments. It created a 300-foot-wide super levee – widest in California and perhaps even the nation. It cost them $70 million. In the end, they will also have created 900 home sites with “million dollar views” on their portion of the fortified levee.

River Islands is now arguably the most well protected community ever developed in a floodplain in California.

The forces that seemed lined up against River Islands were more than just the byzantine federal government agencies in control of flood control.

In addition to enough federal red-tape to choke every breathing horse in North America they had to face lawsuits of biblical proportions.

The Sierra Club and an A to Z repertoire of environmental groups ranging from those wanting to protect fish to those fretting over global warming couldn’t stop them.

Making environmental opposition all the more ironic is the fact Cambay Group hired biologists and other experts to do what the state has failed to do – come up with a plan to restore the river along their project and add wetlands and do it all on the private sector’s dime.

River Islands – when completed – will have 18 miles of universal river access. Once the San Joaquin River reaches the valley floor, nowhere does any substantial river access exist. Probably the entirety of river banks that can legally be accessed by the public currently comes to less than 18 miles in total from Fresno to the Delta.

California’s water wars couldn’t derail them. Cambay Group secured water and didn’t complain about writing another check large enough to make most people’s lottery fantasies come true.

As a result, the planned community that also includes an employment center with the option to create 16,800 jobs has a secure source of water for growth - a rarity in California. And they are treating California liquid gold in a way no other private concern or government agency does: They have imposed requirements for all front-yard and common area landscaping throughout the development to have moisture sensors on all lawns, shrubs and other plants.

And those jobs, by the way, will be lured to River Islands in part by a fee that each new home built in River Islands will pay to fund incentives.

River Islands also has accomplished what could be another first in the annals of California development: Before the first home is sold, a $25 million state-of-the-art school wired for tablet use instead of textbooks will be up and running.

River Islands has already paid for and constructed a new $17 million river crossing long before the start of actual house building. The bridge itself may not be needed for another four years. It stands finished across the San Joaquin River save the approaches on either side.

The principals at Somerset Holdings are old-fashioned businessmen who believe in long-range investing and creating communities that will not only stand and prosper but will reflect well on their commitment to quality.

 It explains why some builders pushing to be selected as the first home builders may have been stunned when Cambay Group turned down their offers for finished lots that provided the firm with more money than those they ended up selecting.

River Islands Project Manager Susan Dell’Osso simply noted it was the Cambay Group’s way of doing business.

“Quality is more important to Cambay Group,” Dell’Osso said. “They want to make sure the value is there to protect their long-term investment.”

Twenty-four years, a dozen or so lawsuits and more than $250 million later no one can doubt that Cambay Group isn’t committed to long-term investments.

And as such, it is a guarantee that River Islands and its 11,000 homes will have a huge – and positive impact – on the regional economy.



This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 209-249-3519.

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