It didn't take the New York Times very long to get to the bottom of the mystery that has been troubling Solano County officials for several years, namely the identity of the people behind a massive buy-up of farmland totaling over $800 million.
It was just a month ago that the general public started hearing about this mystery group, called Flannery Associates, that had amassed a huge swath of land in Solano County next door to Travis Air Force Base. Earlier this week, we learned that the group had sent a survey out to county residents, revealing their intention to build a new city out of whole cloth, creating "tens of thousands" of new homes, as well as new parks, a new aquaduct to bring in water, "a large solar energy farm, [and] orchards with over a million new trees."
Lo and behold, as the New York Times reported Friday, some of the wealthy investors behind Flannery Associates LLC are none other than LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, Marc Andreessen and Chris Dixon of famed VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, sibling Stripe co-founders Patrick and John Collison, billionaire VC and SF Standard founder Michael Moritz, investors Nat Friedman and Daniel Gross, and Steve Jobs's widow Laurene Powell Jobs. The Times doesn't know how much each person has invested, and they note that the Andreessen Horowitz firm is a backer as well.
So, kind of like the billionaires who have looked at our struggling planet and decided they should scrap it and colonize Mars, we appear to have a group of extremely wealthy Bay Area residents who, rather than invest in the cities we have, want to create a brand new one in their own image, with potentially a new form of governance, as Moritz reportedly described in a pitch to investor friends obtained by the Times.
Per the Times, the project of this new city is the "brainchild" of 36-year-old former Goldman Sachs trader Jan Sramek, and he made the pitch to these wealthy investors six years ago. And Flannery has been very careful not to draw much attention to itself, even though these recent stories have broken through about the massive amount of land — some 52,000 acres — that they have bought up, sometimes at three or four times the going rate for farm land in this area.
But it sounds like they want to come out of the closet, as it were, and it started just this week. Congressman John Garamendi, who represents the area, says he's been trying to figure out who was behind Flannery Associates for years, but that all changed with a phone call this week from a rep for the company, seeking a meeting in which they want to lay out their plans.
"This is their first effort, ever, to talk to any of the local representatives, myself included," Garamendi tells the Times.
The Chronicle just ran its own, second piece this week on the Flannery land mystery today, and in it they note that this grand project is going to require buy-in at the state and county level, not to mention probably the city of Fairfield next door, and the implications for Travis AFB are unclear. The piece described a culture of fear around the farmers who have sold to Flannery or who have been sued by the group over what was described in a court filing as an "illegal price-fixing conspiracy."
One rancher described a situation in which Flannery had allegedly gone around some family members who didn't want to sell a piece of land to appeal to other family members who did, calling it "Shakespearian, a ‘Game of Thrones’ kind of thing."
And land use Attorney Steve Herum calls out another fairly obvious fact, which is the parade of lawsuits this is likely to attract from environmentalists, the state, or other agencies.
"It’s a heavy political load,” Herum tells the Chronicle. “You are going to be in constant contact with the planning department, the board of supervisors, the school district, the fire district and all the other public agencies."
Fairfield Mayor Catherine Moy, a former journalist who earlier this week posted her concerns to Facebook about the Flannery poll and the potential impacts to Travis AFB, tells the Times that the plans seem "very pie in the sky," especially given the challenges of the land itself, and the poor infrastructure that currently serves it.
The area is prone to floods and wildfires, as the Chronicle also pointed out, and water will clearly be an issue, even if they can get the land re-zoned from agricultural.
Moritz reportedly said in his pitch to friends that re-zoning might be an issue, but if they succeed it could be "a spectacular investment."
There will be a huge amount of legal maneuvering to get this done — but can money buy you the influence and cut-throat lawyers needed to do it?
"Policies designed to prevent the rapid urbanization of farmland and habitat don’t appear to be working if there is one company that thinks they can overcome all that," says Christopher Cabaldon, former mayor of West Sacramento who sits on the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, speaking to the Chronicle.
Top image: Some of the land in question, via Google Street View