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Bay Area tech billionaires behind mystery land grab revealed

LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman is reportedly one of a group of investors behind an effort to build a new city in Solano County. | Source: Kelly Sullivan/Getty Images

Several high-profile Bay Area tech billionaires were identified Friday as the investors behind a company that has spent $800 million in recent years to acquire a wide swath of land in Solano County with the hopes of transforming it into a modern metropolis.

The group, which has been operating under the company name Flannery Associates, has been purchasing rural land around Jepson Prairie and Montezuma Hills in Solano County, about 60 miles northeast of San Francisco. 

The New York Times reported that the effort was spearheaded by a former investment banker named Jan Sramek, who has signed up a group of elite tech entrepreneurs and investors that include Andreessen Horowitz partners Marc Andreessen and Chris Dixon, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, Stripe co-founders Patrick and John Collison, billionaire philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs and Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital. 

For the last five years, Flannery Associates has been assembling thousands of acres of farmland, in many cases paying multiple times the market rate to do so. 

The secretive effort raised the hackles of locals, and reports said federal lawmakers were spooked by the prospect of a foreign power acquiring land surrounding Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield.

"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," Flannery Associates' representative Brian Brokaw wrote in a statement.

"We are excited to start working with residents and elected officials, as well as with Travis Air Force Base, on making that happen. That conversation starts next week, and we look forward to sharing more then."

Thus far, Flannery Associates has spent $800 million to acquire 140 properties spanning more than 50,000 acres of farmland, according to legal filings. The land largely consists of commercial wind farms, energy infrastructure and conservation projects.

In May, the company filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Sacramento accusing a number of local landowners of colluding to drive up the price of their properties.  

For the first time this week, Flannery started to go public with its pitch to community members and elected officials. 

A survey released earlier in the week tipped the company’s plans by gauging community members' opinions about a development that may include “tens of thousands of new homes, a large solar energy farm, orchards with over a million new trees, and over 10,000 acres of new parks and open space,” according to a screenshot of the poll viewed by The Standard.

Thousands of acres of farmland in and around Rio Vista have been purchased by a group known as Flannery Associates. | Source: George Rose/Getty Images

The survey said “in the first 10 years alone the project is expected to generate thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions in tax revenue.” Moritz, reached by The Standard, declined to comment.

Lisa Shipley, manager of the Solano County Farm Bureau, used two words to characterize Flannery’s approach to buying land: “secretive” and “aggressive.” Shipley said her organization has spoken to a variety of elected officials, both local and national, who knew little to nothing about the plans and the people behind them. 

“I’ve never seen anything like the expense they’ve paid, but then again, I don’t know a lot about the whole incorporating of a new city,” Shipley said. “My question would be, 'Why would you not bring the community surrounding you in on it?'”

Not much but ranch land lies along Highway 12, where much of the land has been purchased, so there are few residences or even buildings. But one noted landmark is the Western Railway Museum’s 21 acres, where Allan Fisher is the curator. 

Fisher, a six-year resident of Fairfield, said the Flannery group hasn't approached the museum, but everyone in the neighborhood has been talking about its purchases for the past six months.

While he had yet to learn of plans for a new city, he said any such move would have to go through the voters as all that land is zoned as agricultural. 

“It will take a few billion dollars to bribe people to do that,” he said. "I think they would have trouble right now doing that.”

If a new city is built in the area, it would have to deal with the museum, as it has a 21-mile rail right-of-way that runs through the area. 

Rio Vista resident and museum employee Judy Katona is skeptical of the plans. 

“I’m suspicious,” she said.”There's no transparency.”  

She worries any new city would tax the area’s water resources and change the fabric of what is a ranching and farming community. 

Rio Vista Mayor Ron Kott said a major hurdle to turning any of the agricultural land in the area into urban uses is the Williamson Act, which gives many farmers in the area tax breaks if they promise to never develop their land.

Rio Vista City Council Member Edwin Okamura said the Flannery Associates’ actions have raised eyebrows in the area.

"I think it's disappointing there's been no transparency,” he said. “That’s part of the angst of them coming into the region—no one knows who they are.”

Editor’s note: Venture capitalist Michael Moritz finances The Standard.