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River Islands developer prefers big challenges
LATHROP — River Islands at Lathrop is just the latest in a series of bold investments by a firm that traces its roots back to 1854 in England when it got its start managing and owning the famous Tea Clippers.

It flourished and expanded through the decades and survived The Great Depression and two World Wars before the shipping company made the crucial decision to diversify into property investment and development.

Today that privately held firm of Somerston Group of Companies headquartered in England oversees the subsidiary Cambay Group that is responsible for nurturing the biggest planned community ever envisioned for the San Joaquin Valley - River Islands at Lathrop.

The 4,800 acre project that includes 10,800 homes, a town square, and an employment center plus numerous touches such as internal manmade lakes has been in the making since 1989.

The firm’s investment is pushing $200 million yet not one home has been built.

Given the current housing market, that’s fine by the firm.

“We’re fortunate that we didn’t get started building homes three years ago or we could have had the same mess everyone else is having,” said project coordinator Susan Dell’Osso.

The first phase of 4,300 homes is ready to go. Cambay Group has secured water, solved flooding concerns by certain unique 300-foot wide super levees, beaten back a global warming lawsuit, won environmental critics on to their side through a serious of innovative river restoration plans, and has even put in place its own irrigation district to provide those who live and work in River Islands with electricity substantially lower than the going rate PG&E charges.

Dell’Osso noted that River Islands fits into the philosophy of Cambay Group President and Chief Executive officer Allan Chapman.
“Allan believes the harder it is to get something done, the larger the profit margin,” Dell’Osso said.

To describe River Islands as a large challenge is a major understatement. Developers in California for years have avoided pushing forward projects of 500 homes or more. Under state law, they are required to come up with adequate water plus they also attract plenty of attention from anti-growth critics and environmentalists.

Cambay Group met those challenges head on essentially writing a check in advance to help pay for its share of Lathrop’s treated water from the South San Joaquin Irrigation District surface water treatment plant even though they have yet to use a drop. They also found ways to meet or exceed the goals of environmentalists by devising plans to essentially restore 14 miles of river and delta habitat that had been wiped out by the original building of levees. That will involve creating “lips” or large swaths on land on the river side of the levees and to plant appropriate vegetation. It is believed to be the most effective project yet to address the needs of the endangered Riparian Rabbit that wasn’t even known to exist on Stewart Tract until Cambay Group undertook an exhaustive environmental study.

Cambay Group has worked overtime to make sure River Islands isn’t just another gigantic California subdivision.

They will require moisture sensors in all landscaping to reduce water consumption and are exploring requiring all homes to have gray water so bath and shower water can be used to water grass.

They are exploring putting in place small solar farms that can power clusters of 100 homes.

The project creates unprecedented river access to 14 linear miles.

Next year, work will start a $17 million project to put in place twin 300-foot-long bridge decks to ultimately connect the heart of the proposed 10,800-home River Islands planned community with the neighborhoods in the Mossdale Landing community of west Lathrop.

What makes the bridge unique is the fact it will not only stand unused for at least three years  after  it is finished but there won’t be a roadway connecting to it on either side during that time nor will the dirt embankment be built up for the approach roads. In short, it will look like a giant canopy over the river between the time it is done and the market catches up to create a demand for the roads.
The earliest River Islands now expects for homes to break ground is in 2012.

And when they do start, it is expected to be 125 homes annually in the first few years. Originally River Islands had targeted 400 homes a year.