Local stakeholders react to Flannery Associates 52,000 acre purchases
The secrecy and scale of the project have local leaders skeptical
The Reporter, by Nick McConnell, August 30, 2023
Vacaville Mayor John Carli is an easy man to reach. His phone number is on the city website, after all.
So he finds it puzzling why no one from Flannery Associates, a shadowy LLC that has bought up 52,000 acres of Solano County land over the last several years, has given him a call. He’s not shy about the fact he has some questions for them.
The group, anonymous until The New York Times identified them as Silicon Valley tech billionaires over the weekend, has spent over $800 million on land between Vacaville, Fairfield, Rio Vista, Suisun City and critically, Travis Air Force Base. The price of land in the area has increased tenfold, Carli said, but the group continued to buy.
Tech investors Michael Mortiz of Sequoia Capital, Linked-In Founder Reid Hoffman, Venture capitalists Marc Andreessen and Chris Dixon, and others are involved in the investment group, which The Times reported as the “brainchild” of Jan Sramek, a former Golden Sachs trader.
The 52,000 acres already purchased amount to a landmass about 1.7 times the size of San Fransisco city limits and almost 81 percent the size of Sacramento. As some un-purchased parcels surrounded by Flannery owned land remain, that number is likely to continue to grow as time goes on.
“When it’s up to 52,000 acres, you begin to realize it’s a pretty good chunk of the county,” Carli said.
Since the purchases began, there has been no shortage of speculation from locals as to what the opaque buyer’s purchases might be. Carli chalks that up to the sheer amount of land acquired at such a rapid pace, especially in the location it is in.
“It certainly created a lot of speculation,” Carli said. “Is it foreign investors? Is the intent nefarious?”
But the true vision appears to be a utopic city of the future, Carli said, providing more affordable housing in the Bay Area, but out of the current major cities where prices and demand remain sky high. And no one can deny that housing crisis is very real — experts have long been citing a lack of development in coastal areas as one of the drivers of the state’s years-long housing woes.
That vision leaves more questions than answers for Carli. Water, for instance, is a big one — it would cost nearly $750 million to re-route an existing aqueduct, in addition to the cost of building out residential plumbing for that much area. On top of that, the cost of expanding electricity, he said, will be exorbitant.
But the biggest and most immediate issue for Carli is the threat these purchases could pose to Travis Air Force Base, which drives $2.5 to $3 billion worth of impact to the local economy as well as being a vital part of military strategy in the Pacific and around the world. Area political leaders have worked closely over the years with Travis to carefully ensure a mutually beneficial relationship, he said, and officials on base have expressed serious concerns about the acquisitions.
If urban development surrounds the base, Carli said, it’s possible that the federal government could choose to close it and move operations to another location. The secrecy around these plans has contributed to this fear, he said.
“This has felt like a threat, you know?” Carli said. “Who are these people? What is their intent?”
And while a brand new city might sound nice, Carli said, the process has so far totally ignored the existing policies for urban development in Solano County. That normally entails meeting with LAFCO, a group of Solano county leaders focused on local government boundaries.
“It completely undermines the structure of the development plans we already have in this county,” Carli said.
LAFCO’s website indicates that the group is made up of members of representatives from the board of supervisors, city mayors and the public at large.
“The Commission, in the consideration of proposals, has to observe four basic statutory purposes,” the website reads. “The discouragement of urban sprawl, the preservation of open space and prime agricultural land resources, the efficient provision of government services, and the encouragement of orderly growth boundaries based upon local conditions and circumstances.”
A representative for LAFCO was not available to comment by press time.
Carli wants to hear more about what is proposed, but the lack of transparency hasn’t done Flannery any favors in his book.
“I don’t start with no, I start with questions,” he said, “but it may not be difficult to get to no quickly.”
Mayor Catherine Moy of Fairfield was unequivocal in her opposition to the acquisitions and to Flannery’s behavior thus far. The secrecy behind the purchases over the span of years has been beyond frustrating, and the lack of concrete plans going through proper channels has angered her as well.
“I think Flannery has gotten off on the wrong foot,” she said.
Landowners who have been in the area for five and six generations have already been forced out, Moy said, and the threat to Travis has been concerning. On top of the direct economic generation that the base provides, she said, 125,000 retirees of the base have settled in the area over the years.
Logistically, Moy sees an uphill battle for the project as well. The roads in the area are drastically underdeveloped for the creation of a metropolitan area, she said, and the high winds in the area will pose challenges.
“I just don’t see personally how they will ever get this done,” she said.
And local elected officials aren’t willing to be dictated to on the development of the project, as she and others have long been discussing how to respond. Moy said LAFCO will be able to stop the development, and elected officials on the federal level are meeting with both Flannery and local officials.
“I don’t see where they have a corner to hide in,” Moy said.
Both in hearing rooms and at the ballot box, Moy said, both politicians and locals are ready to settle in for a long battle against Flannery Associates over the coming months and years.
‘We’re playing hardball, they’ve played hardball,” She said. “They’ve sued people who are just simple farmers, they’ve broken up families and I’m tired of their thuggery.”
Moy sees this as becoming a showdown between Silicon Valley elites and the local community.
“It frankly is the same old story about an upper class, if you will, coming after people who are hardworking, middle class people and farmers,” she said.
While the need for more affordable housing is evident, Moy said, she cannot support growth in the proposed location because of the risk to Travis Air Force Base and to area agriculture, which brings in $1 billion per year.
“Because of where they have the land right now, they just don’t have the infrastructure there right now, and I think people would not be happy living there.”
John Sweeney, a local landowner and former developer who has been following the Flannery situation since 2019, said he still holds property in the area, but knows that Flannery is coming for his land eventually.
“It’s deflating, because you buy some property out in the country to have a little ranch and be away from the city,” he said.
Sweeney lives in Denverton, a municipality of 22. It’s gorgeous out there, Sweeney said, and relatively quiet, but less than the ideal spot for a bustling metropolis — 25 to 30 mph winds buffet the landscape for most of the year. In the summer, when the winds die down, hordes of biting gnats make it near impossible to go outside.
While Sweeney thinks the project may not come to fruition because of the logistical challenges, he thinks the company is likely to get the approval they need to move forward. He’s interested to know who Flannery has talked to, and what those conversations might have looked like.
“You can’t risk that much land not to have some assurance that you’re going to get what you want,” he said.
Following a poll that was put out to area residents recently asking for their opinions on real estate development in the area, Sweeney said he expects the county will be swamped with a PR campaign to get the plan approved.
“In a very short amount of time we will be blitzed…” he said. “We will be inundated”
U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, a Democrat representing the fourth district, announced Wednesday that he met with representatives from Flannery Associates on Tuesday evening, and found their plans for the proposed city lacking in detail. Thompson was critical of the group’s secrecy as well.
“After the meeting, it is clear that they don’t have a plan; they have a vision,” his statement read. “The secrecy under which they operated caused consternation and concern from residents, local elected officials, and federal agencies, and while they explained their rationale, I do not believe the secrecy was necessary. Honesty is the best policy, and they need to begin to work with our community and local leaders if they want to advance their ideas.”
Thompson said Solano County is tight-knit, and the group will have its work cut out in regaining the trust of Solano County residents.
“I want to make sure that a group of Silicon Valley billionaires do not steal family farmers’ ability to farm their land,” said Thompson. “My concerns have always been on national security and food security, and a development of the magnitude they are proposed could harm Travis Air Force Base in the long term.”
State Senator Bill Dodd also issued a statement on the acquisitions, citing similar concerns regarding the company’s secrecy and the impact on agricultural production that could occur.
“Solano County contributes greatly to California’s reputation as being America’s breadbasket,” Dodd said in his statement, “so people in my district are understandably alarmed at a shadowy investment group buying up large tracks of farmland, purportedly to build a new city.”
Dodd said he recognized the importance of investing in more affordable housing in the state, but said the plans to develop should be intentional and responsible. The region must maintain its ability to produce food and avoid suburban sprawl, he said.
“I’m calling on these developers to be fully transparent in their dealings and to abide by state and local land use regulations,” he said, “Trying to subvert agricultural protections, public scrutiny and thoughtful decision-making doesn’t fly.”
Carli said this saga has begun to feel like a season of the hit TV show Yellowstone. He’s heard horrible stories about the legal tactics used by the company to push out landowners, and the silence from Flannery hasn’t helped the anxiety that this may not work out well for locals.
For now, he’s eager to learn more, and waits frustratedly for a call.
“We’ve known that they could have picked up the phone for five years,” Carli said.