There is likely to be plenty of litigation ahead for the outfit funded by a group of tech billionaires known as Flannery Associates, as they navigate the nearly uncharted waters of trying to build a city out of whole cloth in hyper-political, 21st Century California.
And while they may end up being sued at some point, the first legal drama the group faces is of its own making. As Bloomberg reports, legal proceedings are moving along in a lawsuit that Flannery brought this year against a group of landowning farmers in Solano County, claiming that they had illegally inflated the price of their land. And the defendants have filed court documents describing strong-arm tactics that Flannery and its representatives employed in order to amass the 52,000 acres the group now owns, east of Travis Air Force Base.
We learned about this lawsuit early on in this story, back in July, when we still did not know who was funding Flannery Associates. Congressman John Garamendi, who represents California's 8th District, was sounding alarm bells about the land grab and its proximity to Travis AFB, as was the mayor of neighboring Fairfield, Catherine Moy, herself a former journalist.
In an incendiary August Facebook post, Moy said that Flannery's land offers and aggressive tactics had "destroyed families that have farmed in eastern Solano County for 3 and 4 generations," and "pit[ted] family member against family member over Flannery’s money."
Now we're hearing a few more details about that, via court filings in the case that Flannery has brought against a group of landowners — the exact number of defendants isn't clear from Bloomberg's report.
The threat of costly litigation, the landowners say, was something that Flannery's reps had used to convince the unwilling to sell. And the lawsuit is seeking $510 million in damages from a group of landowners, or three times the $170 million that Flannery says these landowners inflated their land values by in a price-fixing scheme.
The lawsuit appears to be an effort both to recoup some of the money Flannery has spent on the land to date — said to be over $800 million — and perhaps to discourage any future price-fixing by the owners of land they may still be seeking to by, though their motives are theirs to know.
Confirming what Fairfield Mayor Catherine Moy had alluded to, court documents obtained by Bloomberg suggest that in one case, seven members of a family objected to selling their land to Flannery, while one family member wanted to sell. And "Flannery then allegedly employed a 'divide-and-conquer' plan by purchasing the one-eighth share and suing the other seven family members to obtain the remaining shares," per Bloomberg.
In late August and early September, Flannery came out of the shadows and revealed itself to be a project funded by a bunch of the wealthiest people in Silicon Valley, including 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 philanthropist (and Steve Jobs's widow) Laurene Powell Jobs.
The visionary planner/developer behind this is a 36-year-old former Goldman Sachs trader named Jan Sramek, who now lives in Solano County with his wife and daughter and a baby on the way.
The city plan is dubbed California Forever, and has this cheery but vague website describing the group's plans, and Sramek has made clear that he envisions a "city of yesterday," with walkable neighborhoods, affordable row houses, and multigenerational communities modeled off of centuries-old European cities.
In a radio interview last month, Sramek said, "We think that there's so much wisdom in how we built cities and towns over the last hundreds of thousands of years [sic] in some places. And so from the beginning, we've believed that you go back to go forward."
Critics have been quick to point out that this vision runs contrary to many of the principals California state and county planners have been trying to put in place for decades, which include sustainable growth, transit-oriented development, preserving farmland, and increasing density in the state's existing urban areas. And one set of regional plans from 60 years ago that Sramek has pointed to as needing "dusting off" included some ludicrous ideas like a new bridge from San Francisco to Sausalito by way of Angel Island, and a sprawling suburb in the pristine lands of West Marin County.
"It’s so sad and disappointing," said Greenbelt Alliance executive director Amanda Brown-Stevens, in earlier comments to the Chronicle. "They’re looking to the past, all the failed approaches that put us in this situation, and doubling down."
California Forever, as it continues to move forward, is allegedly looking to put a measure on the ballot in Solano County next year that would allow them to rezone the land they've bought, and they're currently surveying county residents on their thoughts.
In the broadest sense, the plans reek of the kind of pie-in-the-sky ideas we've seen from Silicon Valley types in the last couple decades when they decide they want nothing to do with the ills of existing urban life and our existing worldly troubles, and they can afford to think big elsewhere — e.g. "seasteading" and colonizing Mars.
Also, even if this imagined city ever does break ground, it could be a very, very long time before those billionaires see a return on their investments — the example of Mountain House in San Joaquin County, the only other new city built in the last few decades in our region, shows just how slow-going and market-dependent the process can be.
And will there be an Atherton-esque neighborhood for the billionaires to decamp to in California Forever, next to all that middle-class housing?