Billionaires want to build a new city in rural California. They must convince voters first



SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The Silicon Valley billionaires behind a secretive $800 million land purchase in Northern California have finally revealed some details about their plans for a new green city, but they still have to win over skeptical voters and local leaders.

After years of ducking experiments, former Goldman Sachs trader Jan Sramek launched a website Thursday about “California Forever.” The site is billed as “an opportunity for a new community of good-paying local jobs, solar farms and open space” in Solano, a rural county between San Francisco and Sacramento that is now home to 450,000 people.

He also began meeting with major politicians representing the area who for years have failed to find out who was behind the mysterious Flannery Associates LLC as it bought up vast amounts of land, making it the county’s largest single landowner.

An all-star roster of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture capitalists is backing the project, including philanthropist Lauren Powell Jobs, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen. The New York Times The first group reports about investors and plans.

California Forever, Flannery’s parent company, has purchased more than 78 square miles (202 square kilometers) of farmland in Solano County since 2018, primarily in the southeastern part of the county, spanning parcels from Fairfield to Rio Vista. Schramek fell in love with the area on a fishing trip, and he and his wife recently bought a home in the county for their growing family, according to the website.

The project issued a poll last month to residents to gauge support for “a new city with tens and thousands of new homes,” a solar energy farm and new parks funded entirely by the private sector.

But to build something like a city on what is now farmland, the group must first convince Solano County voters to approve a ballot initiative to allow urban uses on that land, a protection that has been in place since 1984. Local and federal officials still question the group’s motives.

Two area congressmen are furious that Flannery kept his identity a secret for so long to find out whether foreign advertisers or investors were behind the purchases around a U.S. Air Force base vital to national security and the local economy. The website says 97% of its funding comes from US investors and the rest from the UK and Ireland.

“The FBI, the Treasury Department, everybody is trying to find out who these people are,” U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, who represents most of the county, said this week after meeting with Schrem. “Their secrecy caused a lot of trouble, a lot of time and a lot of expense.”

The investment group said secrecy was needed until enough land was purchased to avoid short-term speculation, but it is now ready to hear from the Solano family through a mailed survey and the formation of a community advisory board. Past surveys have shown parents are most worried about their children’s future, the website said.

“Instead of watching our children leave, we have the opportunity to build a new community that attracts new employers, creates good-paying local jobs, builds homes in walkable neighborhoods, leads in environmental stewardship and a growing tax base to serve the county. “Bigger in Ila,” it said.

California is in dire need of more housing, especially affordable housing for teachers, firefighters, service and hospitality workers. But cities and counties can’t find where established neighborhoods argue against new homes that they say will crowd their streets and ruin their quiet lives.

In many ways, Solano County is ideal for development. It is located 60 miles (96 km) northeast of San Francisco and 35 miles (56 km) southwest of Sacramento, the capital city of California. Solano County homes are the most affordable in the San Francisco Bay Area, with a median sale price of $600,000 last month.

But Suisun City Mayor Pro Tempore Princess Washington said residents made a deliberate decision to preserve open space and keep the area around Travis Air Force Base free of encroachment given its importance.

He is suspicious that the group’s real intention is to “build a city for the elite” under the guise of more housing.

Economic distress is everywhere. So why do you have to spend over a billion dollars to build a new city when you have all these other things that can be achieved across the bay?” he said.

Flannery further angered locals in May when he sued several landowners in court, accusing them of conspiring to fix the value of their properties. The company disclosed that it had purchased or was under contract for approximately 140 properties valued at more than $800 million.

Then last week, residents began getting a push polls rallying voter support for “a big new project” that would include “a new city with thousands of new homes.” The survey asked whether county residents would be more likely to support the project if they were given priority and financial assistance to lease or buy one of the new homes.

Thompson, the congressman, was unimpressed after meeting with Sramek, saying the developer was vague on details and failed to demonstrate an understanding or appreciation of the county or its values.

Asked how he would help residents finance new homes, Thompson said Schramek told him he planned to use “all of his knowledge as a financial person” to build savings. Development in California is complicated, but Thompson said Schramek told him they were hoping for an extended permit “because their project is so good and their intentions are so great.”

“He has no plans, he’s not there yet,” Thompson said.

U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, whose district includes Travis and surrounding areas, said Bess and county officials reached out about five years ago for help finding the land they were buying. Garamendi, who is scheduled to meet the worker on Friday, was happy to know who is supporting the project.

“You big rich Silicon Valley billionaire, you’re doing all these parties. Are you this kind of person? Is this how you want to work? she said. “All they managed to do was completely poison the well.”

Hoffman and Andreessen did not respond to emailed requests for comment, nor did Jobs through his business, Emerson Collective.

Developers of the project said they would protect the military base and that farmers who want to keep farming on their parcels can do so.

Flannery bought virtually all the land around the small town of Rio Vista, Mayor Ron Cote said.

He suspects that the elderly half of the city’s 10,000 residents won’t appreciate the added traffic and noise, but others may prefer the better medical care, nightlife and shopping that a nearby modern city can bring.

“If it’s done right, I think there’s a lot of opportunity for the county. Their tax revenue base will increase quite a bit. So there’s going to be a big windfall from that. Property values ​​are likely to rise here as well. And so I think it’s good from that perspective,” Cote said.

“But again, I think you’re giving up a lifestyle that’s unique to this area.”


AP video reporter Terry Chea contributed from Rio Vista.



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