Taza Khabre

Behind the plan to build a city from scratch in Solano County

Residents of Rio Vista, a farming town of 10,000 near the edge of Solano County, have been haunted by one question for much of the past six years: Who was buying up all the farmland?

It appeared to be a little-known company called Flannery Associates, which until last year had become the largest landowner in the county. Residents speculated about its purpose: Some thought it might be a front for foreign spies; others believed it was a shell company buying property for a new Disneyland.

But even after investigations by county and federal agencies, no one could find out anything about the company’s owners or true intentions.

The veil was lifted in August, when my colleague Erin Griffith and I discovered that the purchase was led by a former Goldman Sachs trader named Jan Sramek, who wanted to build a city of up to 400,000 people on what is now yellow farmland, where families have raised sheep and cattle for generations .

Sramek is supported by the who’s who of Silicon Valley. Its investors include billionaires like Michael Moritz, a venture capitalist at Sequoia Capital; Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn; and Laurene Powell Jobs, founder of Emerson Collective and widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

Now comes the campaign.

In a recent article, I delved into Sramek, the history of Flannery Associates, and where the effort might go from here. Last week, the company, now called California Forever, began collecting signatures for a ballot initiative that would essentially ask Solano County voters for permission to build the city.

It will be a tough battle. The initiative, if it qualifies for the ballot, would ask voters to change a popular, longstanding county ordinance that aims to protect farms by steering development toward cities.

Sramek came to California from the Czech Republic to make his fortune in start-up companies. I discovered in an interview that he is well-studied in housing policy. His basic message was that if the country was serious about solving its housing problems, it would have to build entirely new communities. Adding density to existing neighborhoods through “infill” development — a focus of state lawmakers for the past decade — is also important, but it won’t be enough, he said.

“We can’t say it’s economic opportunity, and then working-class Californians leave the state every year,” Sramek told me.

It’s hard to disagree with his policy message. But because he has worked in secret for years, and in several cases sued farmers who refused to sell to his company, many voters find him untrustworthy. That made California Forever’s ballot initiative campaign something of an apology tour.

You can read my full article here.

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