When Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA) finally met with the mysterious forces behind the Northern California land grab that has troubled his constituents for the last six years, he was a little unimpressed.
His first impression? “They have a long, long, long, long, long way to go,” he told The Daily Beast.
Thompson is the first known legislator to meet with representatives of Flannery Associates, a secretive company that has purchased thousands of acres in rural Solano County, California without revealing the names or motivations of its backers. Last week, the group was reported to be a group of tech billionaires, including venture capitalist Michael Moritz and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffamn, who plan to use the land to build a new utopian city between San Francisco and Sacramento.
But Thompson said the representatives from the group on Tuesday had no blueprints, schematics, or environmental assessments of the project to share. Instead, they told him only that they wanted to build “incredible homes” and a “walkable community” using mostly renewable energy, Thompson said—language the project’s high-profile bakers have been using in pitches to potential investors since at least 2017. Jan Sramek, the group’s leader, had just closed on a house in the area the day before, Thompson said.
“He didn't share anything with me,” Thompson said of any plans or blueprints for the city. “Maybe they've got a fully written plan with schematics and renderings and he's just keeping that in his back pocket until he's ready to play it.”
A spokesperson for Flannery Associates told The Daily Beast the group was “grateful to Rep. Mike Thompson for meeting with Flannery's CEO today to discuss our vision to deliver good-paying jobs, affordable housing, walkable communities, clean energy, sustainable infrastructure, open space, and a healthy environment.” He added: “Our team is working closely with the community and will continue to meet with local leaders to craft a shared vision for Solano County’s future.”
The billionaire backers themselves were not present at the meeting, which was attended by Sramek, a 36-year-old former Goldman Sachs trader, and a political consultant. Thompson said Sramek told him he grew up in a walkable, blue-collar town in the Czech Republic and that it had always been his dream to recreate that in the U.S., and that he’d chosen Solano County based on studies that determined the area was a prime target for Bay Area expansion.
Sramek did not comment on his well-heeled benefactor’s motivations for building a new city, Thompson said, though many of them have been involved in groups advocating for the construction of new housing in the state. Asked why the group members had kept their identities secret for so long, Thompson said Sramek told him they needed to maintain their anonymity until they’d purchased enough land to carry out their plan. “I've been doing public policy for a long time and I've never seen anything roll out like this,” Thompson said.
The mystery of the buyers’ identities has troubled residents for years, as Flannery Associates bought up more than $800 million in farm land in the area—much of it at far over market value prices. Local ranchers described the nearly 54,000-acre land buy as “Shakespearean,” sometimes pitting family members against one another when one member wanted to sell and another wanted to hold out. The company even filed a lawsuit against some landowners in May, claiming they’d conspired to inflate the price of their land.
Now, the group is pivoting to winning over the residents of Solano County, whose support they will need if they want to change the zoning of their land from agricultural to residential. Thompson said Sramek told him they were preparing a ballot initiative to change the zoning, and that they were meeting with local mayors, supervisors, and state legislators about the project. Thompson also thinks the group was behind a poll sent to residents earlier this month asking for their opinion on a “new city with tens of thousands of new homes, a large solar energy farm, orchards with over a million new trees.”
“It’s a political campaign that they're running,” he said. “They're trying to convince voters and opinion makers that this is a good thing.”
On top of the locals, the power behind Flannery Associates will also need to get approvals from state and local regulators and public utilities, and assuage concerns about the risk for flooding and other environmental concerns. Developers told the New York Times that even if they could get the needed approvals, the process could take over a decade.
Thompson said Sramek told him they planned to hire people from “very high levels” of state government who had worked on similar issues. Still, the congressman had his doubts.
“Every square inch of Solano County is regulated by somebody, be it the federal government, the state government, the city government, the county government,” he said. “Whatever they are planning … is going to have to clear a whole bunch of hurdles.”