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For years, residents in Solano County heard about a mysterious group buying up thousands of acres of farmland and making millionaires out of property owners. The agricultural land had been owned by the same families for decades — some of it for more than a century.

But the company, Flannery Associates, did not say what its plans were for the land, dotted with towering wind turbines and sheep grazing on pastureland. It paid several times market value and made offers on properties that were not for sale, according to officials familiar with the land purchases.

Then, last week, a survey was sent to residents asking them what they thought about “a new city with tens of thousands of new homes, a large solar energy farm, orchards with over a million new trees, and over ten thousand acres of new parks and open space,” according to a screenshot of the survey shared with the Los Angeles Times.

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That’s when it became clear that Flannery Associates had big plans for the rural landscape.

Over a five-year period, the company became the largest landowner in Solano County after purchasing more than 55,000 acres of undeveloped land. The company has paid more than $800 million since 2018, according to court records.

U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, who represents the region, said for years he and other officials were unable to determine who was behind the dizzying land grab. Flannery Associates has purchased land that was restricted to open space and agricultural purposes under a state conservation program.

The company seeks to rezone the land, which would require approval by multiple state and county agencies and wouldn’t be as simple as asking residents to vote on the issue, officials familiar with the process said. But the lack of residential zoning in the area does not seem to be a factor for Flannery Associates.

Since its buying jag began, the company has filed suit in federal court against a group of families the firm purchased property from, seeking $510 million. Flannery Associates claims the families conspired to inflate their property values in a scheme to get more money.

Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove) lambasted the company for how it has handled the purchases and for not working with local residents.

“Flannery Associates is using secrecy, bully and mobster tactics to force generational farm families to sell,” Garamendi said during an informational committee hearing on Tuesday that addressed the company’s actions.

For years, residents and politicians speculated that Flannery Associates was backed by foreign investors seeking to spy on Travis Air Force Base. Located in Solano County, the base is one of the busiest military facilities in the nation. Most of the land surrounding the base is now owned by Flannery Associates, according to county documents.

Some of the company’s financial backers were revealed in an article last week by the New York Times, and they include a cadre of tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.

On the eastern end of Solano County, the city of Rio Vista is now surrounded by Flannery Associates land. Mayor Ronald Kott said that, like many Solano County officials, he had not been approached by anyone from the company to discuss plans for the land.

Although he’s now aware of the company’s goals and some of the financial backers, he’s still unsure how his city of 10,000 residents found itself surrounded by land owned by a group of tech billionaires.

“I have more questions than answers,” Kott said. “Our destiny is going to be determined by whatever they’re going to do.”

A person on a bike is seen rounding a bend on a winding road bordered by fence posts and bright green grass.

A cyclist rounds a curve on Montezuma Hills Road in Solano County.

(Paul Chinn / San Francisco Examiner via Getty Images)

Flannery Associates has said little since it was formed as a limited liability company in the state of Delaware in 2018. The company’s actions were first reported by ABC7’s San Francisco Bay Area news station, KGO, which said a mysterious company was purchasing large amounts of land.

Flannery Associates is led by Jan Sramek, a former Goldman Sachs investor who found fame and fortune by the time he was 22, according to a 2010 Business Insider article. Sramek previously worked out of Goldman’s offices in London, but his LinkedIn profile now lists Fairfield, Calif., in Solano County as his primary location.

In a self-help book he co-wrote, Sramek says if given the chance to give his younger self a bit of advice, he would quote Ayn Rand: “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.”

He did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

For years, Garamendi and U.S. Rep Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) tried to pierce through the opaque veil that surrounded Flannery Associates. Then, in the last week, representatives of the company attempted to arrange sit-down meetings with the Congress members and the survey was sent out to residents.

The survey said that the issue of a new city might be on next year’s ballot, which was news to Garamendi and Thompson. There have been no efforts made by any groups to get a new measure on the ballot for this project, according to officials. The survey also said the developers would replace the county’s existing aqueduct — calling it “one of the most polluted in California” — generate tax revenue for schools and be entirely funded by private sector money.

Thompson said the company’s actions had raised food and national security concerns. He’s asked the U.S. Air Force, the Treasury Department, the Defense Department and the FBI to investigate the land purchases. Thompson met with representatives from the company, including Sramek, according to KGO.

“And I don’t think they had a clear understanding of the significance of livestock in Solano County,” Thompson said. “And it was my impression that they kind of pooh-poohed the agricultural value of the land.”

Garamendi plans to meet with representatives from Flannery Associates at a later time, according to his office.

Solano County Supervisor Monica Brown is not familiar with Silicon Valley and spent most of her professional career as a schoolteacher. She heard from friends who received the survey and wondered if the company had the best interests of the county’s current residents in mind.

“We’re growing food and helping people. Why would you stop economic growth like that?” she told the Los Angeles Times. “Why would they spend $800 million and not be transparent about it?”

Flannery Associates has purchased more than 140 parcels of land, according to court records and county assessor data. That number is growing every day, officials say.

But in its lawsuit, the company claims that it overpaid and is seeking to claw back some of its money.

Attorneys for Flannery Associates have referenced personal relationships and text messages among neighbors in court documents — neighbors who could be influenced, they argue, by a scheme to drive up asking prices for the land.

The lawsuit has had a chilling effect on some landowners in the Montezuma Hills and Jebson Prairie area of the county. Multiple residents in the area declined to comment about the company for fear of being named in a lawsuit.

Others who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation by the company say they feel as though Flannery Associates will target anyone who speaks out about the company’s aggressive tactics to buy land.

Garamendi called the lawsuit a “heavy-handed, despicable intimidation tactic.” He said that the company managed to purchase all the land without any of the current governmental safeguards in place to flag the issue. He said that, in the future, information about large land sales, and who is buying and selling, would be vital for lawmakers and residents.

Thompson introduced a bill that was inspired by the Flannery Associates land purchases that would provide more effective tools for state agencies to investigate large land sales.

Through a spokesperson, Flannery Associates said members of the company “care deeply about the future of Solano County and California and believe their best days are ahead.”

The company said the project aims to bring “good-paying jobs, affordable housing, clean energy, sustainable infrastructure, open space, and a healthy environment” to Solano County.

“We are excited to start working with residents and elected officials, as well as with Travis Air Force Base, on making that happen,” spokesperson Brian Brokaw said.

The company says it resorted to secrecy while purchasing the land to avoid rampant real estate speculation. But it has not disclosed specific details about the scope of its project. Representatives for Flannery Associates are meeting with community leaders to present their vision, according to Brokaw.

Flannery Associates launched a website this week called California Forever, after its parent company. Along with illustrations and a brief history of California Forever and Flannery Associates, the website promises a conversation with county residents, the formation of a community advisory board and a trio of offices in Vallejo, Fairfield and Vacaville.

Michael Moritz, venture capitalist and longtime San Francisco resident, is one of the financial backers behind the company. In a 2017 email viewed by the New York Times, Moritz described an opportunity to invest in a new California city. He explained how investors could transform farmland into a bustling metropolis.

Sequoia Heritage, the $15-billion wealth management firm Moritz founded in 2010, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

But in a February New York Times opinion piece, Moritz described some of his frustration with San Francisco and how the city had become “a prize example of how we Democrats have become our own worst enemy.”

He described legislators who deceived voters with tweaks and rule changes to the city’s charter so they could stay in power and drive seismic shifts in the local government.

“The core of the issue, in San Francisco and other cities, is that government is more malleable at the city level than at higher levels of government,” Moritz wrote. “If the U.S. Constitution requires decades and a chisel and hammer to change, San Francisco’s City Charter is like a live Google doc controlled by manipulative copy editors.”

Other financial backers with Flannery Associates include LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman; Andreessen Horowitz venture capital firm investors Marc Andreessen and Chris Dixon; payments company Stripe co-founders Patrick and John Collison; Emerson Collective founder Laurene Powell Jobs; and entrepreneurs turned investors Nat Friedman and Daniel Gross, a Flannery Associates spokesperson confirmed.

Although those names were not repeated at an agricultural committee hearing on Tuesday, lawmakers were thinking of the financial backers’ actions.

Flannery Associates’ land buys threaten the makeup of eastern Solano County, mainly the land under the California Land Conservation Act, which sets aside properties for agricultural purposes and open space. The penalty for not obeying that policy does not seem to dissuade Flannery Associates, former West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon said during the committee hearing.

The act, also known as the Williamson Act, can include a fee for the incompatible structures built on the land. For billionaire property owners, that could just be seen as the price of doing business.

“In some sense,” he said, the conservation program has “been like a flag that says, ‘Buy here.’”

The Flannery Associates project illustrates just how weak current tools are for dealing with a project of this size. Secrecy further hampers state regulators unaware of a buyer’s intent for the land, Cabaldon said.

Brokaw, the Flannery Associates spokesperson, said the company wouldn’t comment on specific issues brought up during the committee hearing but was meeting with county and state leaders to address their concerns.

Officials and landowners worry that much of the infrastructure needed to build a new city is just not present in eastern Solano County. And an influx of development would almost certainly drive out any farmers from the region.

But another scenario that could present itself is Flannery Associates moving ahead with its project only to have it fall apart years later.

“Even if the project is rejected locally … you can’t reset the clock,” Cabaldon said. “You cannot turn it back and say, ‘OK, no harm, no foul. Let’s just return to the way that this community was two years ago.’ Because the owners will be gone, the family farmers will have left.”

Times staff writers Jessica Garrison and Ryan Fonseca contributed to this report.

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