For years, a secretive group has been purchasing land in Solano County, Calif., to create a utopian city for the tech elite. Locals are telling the techies to take their plan someplace else.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
For the past five years, a shadowy group flush with cash has been gobbling up property in a rural county between Sacramento and San Francisco. NPR’s Bobby Allyn looks at how they’ve been stirring up drama and division.
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Retired cattle rancher Kathy Threlfall lives on a small family farm in east Solano County, and she kept hearing about the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent to buy her neighbor’s properties. She and other ranchers kept asking, who are these buyers?
KATHY THRELFALL: Are they going to do lithium mining, are they going to do this? Who are these people? Maybe it’s these guys, maybe – that kind of speculation.
ALLYN: A local congressman grew worried that the investors might have links to China, a question that morphed into a national security concern since some of the land is near an Air Force base. Amid this confusion, the group, known as Flannery Associates, offered Threlfall $4.5 million to buy her land, at least double the market value. She said no.
THRELFALL: I couldn’t imagine selling to an entity that I didn’t know who they were. I couldn’t possibly do business with somebody who was not forthcoming about who they were and what their plans were.
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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: The mystery shrouding a nearly billion-dollar acquisition of Solano County farmland encroaching Travis Air Force Base is finally starting to reveal itself.
ALLYN: The New York Times exposed Flannery Associates as a who’s who of the tech elite – Laurene Powell Jobs, the widower of Steve Jobs, billionaire venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman. Soon after, the group launched a website laying out their plans – prioritizing local jobs, walkable communities, solar farms, open space – seen as an alternative to San Francisco. They say they kept quiet to avoid outside speculators from trying to get in on it. They chose Solano County because it’s near Silicon Valley, and the land is vast and relatively cheap.
JAN SRAMEK: We’ve purchased about 140 properties from about 500 individual owners. We have paid several times per market values for those properties.
ALLYN: That’s Jan Sramek. He’s a former Goldman Sachs trader who is leading the effort, called California Forever. The tech billionaires behind the utopian city project have spent $900 million on enough parcels to cover San Francisco twice, according to the Times. Sramek says California needs more housing, and that this project will serve people of all incomes. But he says, don’t call it a utopia.
SRAMEK: If it’s the case that a place where everyday Californians can afford to live and their kids can walk to school and they can walk to a grocery store and they can have a good paying local job and they don’t have to spend an hour and a half every day and commute each way is a utopia, then that’s a very sad day in California.
ALLYN: While many have cashed in, other residents have formed a resistance movement. Now some of the richest and most powerful business leaders in the world are pitted against farmers wed to the history of this land. Jeannie McCormack and her husband owns 6 square miles along the Sacramento River.
JEANNIE MCCORMACK: My grandfather arrived here in the late 1890s.
ALLYN: And her family remains on the land. It’s a vast ranch, home to nearly 2,000 sheep as well as wheat, barley, alfalfa and grape vineyards. An attorney for the group offered McCormack a big paycheck. She said no way, emphasizing her deep connection to the land.
MCCORMACK: He couldn’t understand why I would value this idea more than I would value the money.
ALLYN: The investors’ offers have even divided families.
MCCORMACK: The bitterness that these people have sown in just a year is staggering.
ALLYN: Sramek with California Forever disputes this. He says his group has not forced anyone to sell, and he says some have ended up with life-changing amounts of money. Some property owners used the money to further invest in Solano County properties.
SRAMEK: Others have used it to start businesses. Many others have used the money to move closer to their children and grandchildren. They’ve paid off debt.
ALLYN: This is not the first time Silicon Valley has tried to create its own city from scratch, says Raymond Craib, a professor at Cornell. He points to efforts by crypto enthusiasts who have wanted to build experimental living communities centered around crypto technology, or the Seasteading Institute, backed by tech billionaire Peter Thiel, which wanted to make a floating city in French Polynesia. Craib the effort underway in Solano County is yet another example of what he calls the tech industry’s colonizing spirit.
RAYMOND CRAIB: They themselves use the word colonization at times – space colonization, colonizing the open ocean, colonizing the high seas.
ALLYN: Craib says Most of these projects have floundered along without much success. Back in Solano County, Kathy Threlfall says her children are the fifth generation to live on her family’s land. And she’s not just going to let tech investors turn her property into the city of Silicon Valley’s dreams.
THRELFALL: I live an hour from San Francisco. I have a horizon. What am I going to do with $2 million?
ALLYN: California Forever backers must have the support of the remaining local residents if they want their plan to become a reality, and they say they’re working on winning the hearts and minds of locals before the plans are someday put to a vote. Bobby Allyn, NPR News.
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