Stem-cell sell

Tsakopoulos’ Yolo proposal assures a prolonged battle mixing science, land use and real estate

The peacefulness of this rural Yolo County scene, just off I-80 at the East Chiles Road interchange, is deceptive. The acreage is actually the latest battleground in a farmland war.

The peacefulness of this rural Yolo County scene, just off I-80 at the East Chiles Road interchange, is deceptive. The acreage is actually the latest battleground in a farmland war.

SN&R Photo By Ralph Brave

Standing atop the embankment abutting the western edge of the wildlife refuge in Yolo County, just off Interstate 80 at the East Chiles Road interchange, the view to the west is an expanse of green and brown farm fields as far as the eye can see. Only a set of silver grain silos gleaming in the sun breaks the scene. Bounded on the far horizon by the coastal mountain range, a turn toward the south provides a vision of Mount Diablo. Overhead, birds glide past to shelter and safety in the refuge. All along the edges of this road, tall white grasses bend and flutter in the cool Delta breeze.

But the profound peacefulness of the scene is deceptive. This acreage has become the latest battleground in the ongoing war over the fate of Yolo County’s distinctive dedication to preserving farmland and open space. Although it’s just commenced, this particular battle’s mix of the area’s most powerful real-estate magnate, the head of the state’s stem-cell oversight committee, the re-evaluation of Yolo County’s General Plan governing development, and next year’s elections promises a prolonged, intense struggle that could determine much about the county’s and the region’s future.

News of the incipient controversy broke last week when the Sacramento Bee published a story revealing that developer Angelo Tsakopoulos hosted a series of private dinners this spring at the Sutter Club to present elected officials and others with a proposal for the development of his 2,800 acres along the stretch of I-80 between Mace Boulevard and the Vic Fazio Wildlife Refuge. With a team of high-profile local consultants coordinating his lobbying efforts, such as former Sacramento city manager Bob Thomas and political consultant Jeff Raimundo, Tsakopoulos is proposing a concept for development that includes donation of land for a stem-cell-research center and creation of an endowment to help finance the center’s activity.

On hand to endorse the Tsakopoulos proposal at one of the dinners, which also had two Yolo County supervisors in attendance, was Robert Klein, chairman of the $3 billion state stem-cell program’s oversight committee. Also present and speaking of the benefits of a stem-cell-research center was the dean of the UC Davis School of Medicine, Claire Pomeroy, although Pomeroy told SN&R that it would not be “appropriate to involve myself in land-use decisions.”

In an interview with SN&R, Amy Daly, executive director of a stem-cell lobbying group also headed by Klein, described the proposed development: Upon approval for residential and commercial development for some portion of the Tsakopoulos 2,800-acre property, 200 acres would be donated to a new nonprofit called Bridge to Cures. One hundred of those acres would be taken to a bank and used as collateral for a loan to finance the building of the research center and its labs. Part of the profits from the residential and commercial development would go into an endowment, to be used as loans, grants and other financing for biotech companies to advance stem cell and other biomedical discoveries into clinical applications. The Bridge to Cures governing board would include Klein, patient advocates, scientists, Tsakopoulos, and his daughter Eleni and son Kyriakos.

Daly says that the research center would be focused on “translational research,” referring to moving bioscience discoveries from the lab to bedside medicine. The center’s labs would be leased to for-profit companies doing such research, including on stem cells.

While a fact-sheet provided by consultant Raimundo states that “the foundation would operate with more than $200 million to provide working capital for research and therapy development,” Daly says the figure discussed has ranged from $50 million to $400 million. “It all depends on what size development gets approved,” says Daly. “The larger the development, the larger the endowment. The smaller the development, the smaller the endowment.”

Precisely this kind of linkage between the research center, the size of the endowment and the residential and commercial development has some decrying the proposal as a cynical attempt to gain approval for a real-estate venture. Environmental attorney James Pachl told SN&R that Tsakopoulos’ “proposal is an attempt to bribe the supervisors by offering to contribute to a fashionable charity in exchange for approval of AKT’s development project. Perhaps legal, but too unethical for most public officials to consider. The AKT property is valuable farmland, wildlife habitat and open space that should continue to be farmed.” A supporter of stem-cell research, Pachl expressed concern that “the proposal will create a local political firestorm that will likely stop the project and damage the credibility of stem-cell researchers.”

Adding to suspicions of the deal is the revelation that Tsakopoulos recently donated $125,000 to Klein’s stem-cell campaign committee. A campaign-finance report at the secretary of state’s office confirms that Tsakopoulos’ company gave $125,000 to the Klein committee on April 17, around the time that Klein appeared at the Sutter Club dinner. Daly says that the fund raising is aimed at paying off remaining debt from the 2004 stem-cell initiative campaign. Campaign reports show that one of the major creditors owed by the campaign is Klein.

Attending one of the Tsakopoulos-hosted private dinners were Yolo County supervisors Mike McGowan and Mariko Yamada, both of whom were quoted in the Bee article as positively inclined toward considering some type of research center in a stretch of the I-80 corridor. But Yamada told SN&R that there was no mention made of any housing development. “No, I heard nothing proposed about housing development at that dinner,” Yamada says. Supervisor McGowan concurred that no housing development was mentioned at the dinner. Instead, he says, the focus was almost entirely on stem cells and biomedical research. “It was very inspiring and uplifting,” McGowan says.

Yamada told SN&R that she would not support any housing development there, as the land sits unprotected in the Yolo Basin flood plain. McGowan also suggested housing development in an unincorporated area would be counter to the county’s strategy for new housing to occur in existing cities.

Tsakapoulos consultant Raimundo was asked by SN&R whether land for a research center still would be donated if no residential development was allowed. At press time, no response to this question had been received.

Yamada, who is chairwoman of the county board, already has emerged as the target of criticism on a community Web site, with accusations that she has moved from being a “slow-growther” to a politician more accommodating to development. While passionately defending her commitment to preserving Yolo County’s farmland and open space as top priority, Yamada is running for the state Assembly seat being vacated next year by Lois Wolk. Campaign professionals suggest she will have to raise at least $500,000 to be competitive with primary opponent Christopher Cabaldon, the mayor of West Sacramento. But, Yamada firmly asserts, “I don’t practice checkbook politics.”

Yolo County is now going through an extensive process of studies and public hearings in redrafting its General Plan, the document that will guide development for decades to come. Until the General Plan is completed, the county is not accepting any development proposals. Yamada says that it will take at least until July 2008, and more likely until the end of 2008. But, Yamada says, “Clearly the General Plan decisions would directly signal whether the Board of Supervisors would be supportive of anything going on in that I-80 corridor.”

At their upcoming July 17 meeting, the Yolo County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to discuss and take action on whether to specifically consider the Tsakopoulos farmland for inclusion in the General Plan as a potential site for future development.