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Elected Officials to Meet With Silicon Valley Investors Behind $800 Million Solano County Land Grab

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a town seen from above, next to a river, with fields and windmills in the background
The small town of Rio Vista, located along the Sacramento River and Highway 12. The town's mayor said a group of Silicon Valley investors bought land surrounding the city and parcels within the city limits.  (George Rose/Getty Images)

Elected officials in Solano County will meet this week with a group of Silicon Valley billionaires who want to construct a new city on nearly $1 billion worth of land they secretly purchased.

Over the last five years, Flannery Associates has purchased $800 million worth of land just outside of Travis Air Force Base. After the land was bought for much more than its present value, government officials started investigating the group due to homeland security concerns with the location next to a military base.

But The New York Times recently revealed that, rather than a foreign adversary, Silicon Valley tech giants have been buying up the agricultural land — in hopes of starting a city from scratch. According to the Times, those backing Flannery Associates include Laurene Powell Jobs, entrepreneur and founder of Emerson Collective, venture capitalist Michael Moritz, Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn and Marc Andreessen and Chris Dixon, investors at the Andreessen Horowitz venture capital firm.

The revelation has not soothed the concerns of local officials and existing community members.

“We were concerned it might be the Chinese. Well, we’re still concerned. A bunch of wealthy Silicon Valley billionaires putting together an initiative that suits their purpose may be a very serious threat to Travis Air Force Base and our national security,” U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, who represents Solano County, told KQED. “Flannery Associates have proven themselves to be terrible bad actors, using strong-arm techniques that you might find in the mafia, forcing people to sell their land even though they did not want to, and engaging in practices that are just despicable.”

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Representatives from Flannery will meet with elected officials, starting this week, to discuss their ambitious plans to build a new city in an area that’s about halfway between San Francisco and Sacramento.

“We care deeply about the future of Solano County and California and believe their best days are ahead. We are proud to partner on a project that aims to deliver access to good-paying jobs, affordable housing, clean energy, sustainable infrastructure, open space and a healthy environment to residents of Solano County,” Brian Brokaw, a Flannery spokesperson, said in a text message to KQED. “We are excited to start working with residents and elected officials, as well as with Travis Air Force Base, on making that happen.”

Before investors were revealed, Flannery sent out a poll to local residents asking about building the new city between Fairfield and Rio Vista.

The poll, obtained by KQED, suggested that Flannery Associates could try for a ballot measure as soon as next year to begin approving development plans, which are still very unclear.

A representative from Flannery told KQED that the company is looking to launch a voter initiative to change zoning laws on the land, predominantly used for agriculture.

In addition to building housing in the area, the company is interested in agricultural investments in the long- and short-term, correspondence from 2018 and 2019 between Flannery and Solano County’s Department of Resource Management shows.

The news has brought much confusion and concern for local leaders, like Rio Vista Mayor Ron Kott.

He acknowledged some opportunities that rezoning the area could bring, including an influx of property taxes and investment in renewable energies like solar or wind farms. But the covert nature of the operation has perplexed him.

“Flannery has never contacted anybody in Rio Vista, nobody in the city government. Not a word,” he said. “And we’re surrounded by it. So whatever decisions they make, it affects our city directly, both good and bad.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson represents parts of Sonoma and Solano, along with Napa and Lake counties.

“If they have a proposal or a plan to develop the properties that they purchased or plan to purchase, they’re going to need to work with the local community,” Thompson told KQED. “They’re going to have to be part of the community and they’re going to have to treat the local community with respect and work with them, not work against them.”

Plans for the unnamed city have been in discussion as far back as 2017, when billionaire investor Michael Moritz wrote to potential investors about the chance to get in on the creation of an entirely new California community, The New York Times first reported.

Flannery was then developed by former Goldman Sachs trader Jan Sramek, according to a pitch deck for the project that Moritz circulated, which outlined ideas such as a community built off the clean energy economy, robust public transportation and urban life.

Since then, Flannery has purchased nearly 140 properties, many of which were bought higher than their present value, totaling nearly $1 billion.

But Flannery representatives would not say who they have been in discussions with in terms of actual city planning.

“It’s going to pose some serious water issues and it’s going to cause some serious transportation issues, because our transportation system right now is already strained,” Kott said. “Their land purchases have pretty much surrounded the city of Rio Vista, including some parcels within the city limits.”

Flannery’s land grab came under the microscope earlier this year when the company filed a lawsuit alleging local farmers were inflating land prices.

The lawsuit states that the company bought about 140 parcels of land from 400 landowners. Flannery accused a group of landowners, who held off on selling, of price fixing and violating anti-trust in order to collectively raise their prices.

Some of the landowners have reached a settlement with Flannery, while others have motioned to dismiss the lawsuit.

“These are five-, six-generation family farmers in the area. Some refused to sell. So Flannery filed a lawsuit against seven family farmers, claiming that they were engaged in an illegal constraint of trade to raise the prices,” Garamendi said. “Never in all my years have I ever heard of somebody suing a group of farmers to try to force them to sell their land.”

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KQED reporters Billy Cruz, Annelise Finney and Dan Brekke contributed to this story.

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