A number of residents in Solano County awoke to strange text messages this month, asking for their opinion on a possible ballot measure. The initiative would support the development of “a new city with 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."
As enticing as all that sounds, some local residents and officials say the old adage applies: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
The text messages were commissioned by Flannery Associates LLC, a mysterious corporation based out of Delaware. In the past six years, Flannery has purchased over $800 million in real estate northeast of San Francisco near Travis Air Force Base. The acquisitions – often made above asking price – total 52,000 acres and make Flannery the largest single landowner in Solano County.
Fairfield Mayor Catherine Moy has been sounding the alarm. Flannery now owns land inside Fairfield and Rio Vista, and near Suisun City.
Moy, a former investigative journalist, dug into the public records to uncover the true scope of Flannery’s purchases.
“When I first wrote about Flannery, I called all of the county supervisors. None knew anything about it,” she said.
The corporation's exact origins remain a mystery. The so-called “brainchild” behind Flannery is former Goldman Sachs trader Jan Sramek. The author and Ayn Rand devotee is worth $5.2 billion.
Sramek’s real estate venture is supported by a cadre of wealthy investors, including LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman, venture capitalist Michael Moritz, and Steve Jobs’ late wife, Laurene Powell.
For a while, Flannery’s activities flew under the radar. Then the company took Solano County residents to court. In a lawsuit, Flannery accused them of conspiring to increase their property prices. The lawsuit brought more scrutiny to the company’s activities.
When voters received the text messages about Flannery’s planned “mega-city,” they turned to their congressman, John Garamendi (D-CA-08), who has also taken notice of the project. Garamendi is concerned about the group’s purchases because of their proximity to the air force base. He believes the company may have ties to China, and he’s asked the FBI, the U.S. Treasury, and the Air Force to investigate.
“It's very concerning,” he told NBC News, noting that the land they’ve purchased “is right up against the fence on three sides of the base, positioning whoever is there to be in a place to gain intelligence or information, or possibly to disrupt operations.”
Their activities, according to Garamendi, mirror the activities of Chinese firm Fufeng Group, which raised eyebrows earlier this year when it purchased a parcel of land near Grand Forks Air Base in North Dakota.
“The bottom-line question is: who the hell are these people?” said Garamendi. “We still don't know.”
His concerns are shared by Mayor Moy and Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA-4), who has also called for a federal investigation.
Flannery insists its intentions are noble.
“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,” the company said in a statement, adding that it's “excited to start working with residents and elected officials.”
If these billionaires truly want to build a sustainable city, critics say they went about it the wrong way – first by concealing their identities and then by suing the very residents whose support they depend on. To push its plan through, Flannery would need a majority of Solano County voters to approve it.
Whether or not the federal government gets involved, the tech moguls got more than they bargained for.
“They have plenty of land for a city,” said Mayor Moy, “but they're in for a fight. I'm asking them to call me - let's talk. This is not the way to go about making friends.”