June 21, 2024
Uber-rich folk from out of town are bringing change, stress and turmoil to rural Solano County.

Kathy Threlfall received two offers from a group of ultra-wealthy Silicon Valley investors to buy her Solano County farm and a two-story farmhouse built by her great-grandparents that’s “a little cocky-wobble” with age. The would-be buyers, a who’s-who of Silicon Valley billionaires, are snapping up farmland and suing neighbors to construct their vision of utopia north of Antioch and east of Vallejo.

Threlfall, 75, is retired from cattle ranching, but still takes comfort in the rolling hills and farms surrounding her 240-acre property about three miles northwest of the Sacramento River. The landscape, green in winter and spring and golden now, fills her with a sense of home, community and “belonging somewhere.”

Now, the uber-rich folk from out of town, operating under a secretive company, Flannery Associates, and its just revealed parent, California Forever, are bringing change, stress and turmoil, Threlfall said.

She said no deal to the investors she believes understand financial returns but not local farmers’ connection to the land. “It’s strong and it runs deep, it runs through generations, it runs through good times and bad times,” Threlfall said. “It hurts me to see my neighbors in pain and this situation has caused them a lot of pain.”

Kathy Threlfall looks over her ranch in Rio Vista, Calif., on Friday, Sept. 1, 2023. Threlfall, 75, is retired from cattle ranching, but still takes comfort in the rolling hills and farms surrounding her 240-acre property.  (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

The California Forever plan, hatched by former Wall Street trader Jan Sramek, has sparked outrage and worry from local residents up to the U.S. Congress.

The investors’ group, its members’ identities concealed until a recent New York Times report, has spent more than $800 million acquiring tens of thousands of acres of land, according to Solano County and a lawsuit filing. Seeking more parcels, it is suing resistant farmers for a total of $510 million in damages, describing them as “a group of wealthy landowners” and accusing them in the lawsuit of conspiring to “overcharge” out of “endless greed.”

The company responded to most questions about the project by referencing its website.

Perceived bullying of farmers whose agricultural roots reach back generations in the county, and the surreptitious nature of the project, have “angered the community very broadly and very deeply,” said former Solano County Supervisor Duane Kromm.

“The animosity towards Flannery is so overwhelming,” said Kromm, now a leader of the Solano County Orderly Growth Committee citizens group. “Their arrogance, that ‘We can buy our way in and get whatever we want just because we have more money than God,’ it’s so troubling. I think they thought about it as a Monopoly board — not that there are people involved, and interconnected agriculture, and history.”

In a newly launched website, the investors group said it had begun buying Solano County land secretly to “avoid creating a rush of reckless short-term land speculation.” It is “now excited to move on to the real work of building a thoughtful and consensus-minded plan.”

Project investors include a roster of billionaires: venture capitalists Marc Andreessen and Michael Moritz, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and businesswoman Laurene Powell Jobs, according to California Forever, which was founded in 2017.

Artist renderings of a purported utopian plan, building a dream city in rural Solano County by a company, Flannery Associates, made up of ultra-wealthy Silicon Valley investors. (Courtesy of California Forever)

Artist renderings of a purported utopian plan, building a dream city in rural Solano County by a company, Flannery Associates, made up of ultra-wealthy Silicon Valley investors. (Courtesy of California Forever)

Artist renderings of a purported utopian plan, building a dream city in rural Solano County by a company, Flannery Associates, made up of ultra-wealthy Silicon Valley investors. (Courtesy of California Forever)

Artist renderings of a purported utopian plan, building a dream city in rural Solano County by a company, Flannery Associates, made up of ultra-wealthy Silicon Valley investors. (Courtesy of California Forever)

Artist renderings of a purported utopian plan, building a dream city in rural Solano County by a company, Flannery Associates, made up of ultra-wealthy Silicon Valley investors. (Courtesy of California Forever)

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This week, the company’s website presented its plans: idyllic scenes of rolling hills and towns, with waterside villas and a lively village square. Renderings show utopian scenes of kids on bikes, kayakers in a bucolic wetland, and a solar panel being installed against a rising sun. “We have the opportunity to build a new community that attracts new employers, creates good paying local jobs, builds homes in walkable neighborhoods, leads in environment stewardship, and fuels a growing tax base,” the group said on the site.

Despite the glowing marketing, the enterprise has raised wide-ranging worries — and suspicions — among elected officials fearing everything from a water grab to suburban sprawl to loss of important farmland.

While the website refers to a new community, Sramek, the Flannery founder and former Goldman Sachs trader, told U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, a Napa Democrat, in an Aug. 29 meeting that “it might be one city, it might be two, it might be three,” said Thompson, whose district includes the proposed development area. “They’re trying to figure out what their plan’s going to be,” Thompson said.

A ranch and windmills seen in Rio Vista, Calif., on Friday, Sept. 1, 2023. A group of Silicon Valley billionaires are planning a utopian city in Solano County, but some ranchers are not willing to sell. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

In an effort to gauge community sentiment, the group sent a recent survey by text message. It said an initiative might be on the ballot next year to allow a new city, tens of thousands of homes, a large solar array, orchards with more than a million trees, and thousands of acres of new parks and open space. Thompson said the group told him it plans to replace older wind turbines in the region with new ones.

Sramek, according to California Forever, moved to California 10 years ago after living in “many of the world’s most walkable, livable, and sustainable towns and cities” and fell in love with Solano County through fishing trips to the Delta. Sramek and his wife Naytri recently bought a home in the county and “are excited to live here with their toddler daughter, her soon-to-arrive little brother, and golden retriever Bruce,” the website said.

Since 2018, Flannery has bought 325 parcels of land, 90 of them this year, making it the county’s largest landowner, said Solano County Supervisor Wanda Williams. California Forever said it owns more than 50,000 acres between Fairfield and Rio Vista — “about half of the properties in this area.”

U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, a Richmond Democrat whose district includes the project area, said some of the holdouts against the group’s purchases are “land rich and money poor” farmers whose ranches date back four or five generations. Garamendi described the lawsuit in Sacramento federal court as “outrageous” and “despicable” and likened it to “mobster practices.” Thompson said a landowner told him he had been forced to sell his property to Flannery after it sued him and his sibling, who “didn’t have the pockets to compete against these guys.”

For project critics, loss of agricultural land to suburban sprawl is high on the issues list. Solano County pegged the value of its agriculture last year at $391 million, including $86 million from cattle, sheep, goats and poultry, and $250 million from field crops, vegetables, fruits and nuts. “Without farmers, we can’t eat,” Williams said.

Sheep move around the McCormick Ranch in Rio Vista, Calif., on Friday, Sept. 1, 2023. Al Medvitz and his wife Jeannie McCormack, not pictured, raise sheep for wool and lamb, grow alfalfa, and lease out tracts for wheat, barley and other crops in their 3700-acre farm. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

Ranchers Jeannie McCormack, left, her husband Al Medviz and their dog Jack, sit on hay at their ranch in Rio Vista, Calif., on Friday, Sept. 1, 2023. She and her husband raise sheep for wool and lamb, grow alfalfa, and lease out tracts for wheat, barley and other crops.(Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

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Jeannie McCormack’s family has been on her 3,700-acre farm since the late 1800s. She and her husband, Al Medvitz, raise sheep for wool and lamb, grow alfalfa, and lease out tracts for wheat, barley and other crops. The couple turned down Flannery’s offer to buy their land, which is special, “because it does not require anything other than what Mother Nature provides. And it’s beautiful,” said McCormack, 79.

View of alfalfa field in the McCormack Ranch in Rio Vista, Calif., on Friday, Sept. 1, 2023. Al Medvitz and his wife Jeannie McCormack, not pictured, raise sheep for wool and lamb, grow alfalfa, and lease out tracts for wheat, barley and other crops in their 3700-acre farm.  (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

Their crops need no irrigation, other than drinking water for sheep, and water from the Sacramento River for 100 acres of alfalfa and a 50-acre vineyard, the couple said.

Forever California’s website said grazing land would be developed, but it plans “a compact community away from prime agricultural lands, surrounded by open space.” Thompson said California Forever described the land to him as “on the low end” for agriculture. “That may be on the low end compared to high-end cabernet grapes or something, but if you’re a cattle rancher or sheep rancher you probably wouldn’t have that same idea,” Thompson said.

Water issues around Forever California’s plan caught the eye of state Sen. Melissa Hurtado. The Fresno Democrat said she worries the investors, and others around California, may be seeking to control water by purchasing land with water rights. That concern is valid, said Brian Gray, a water expert at the Public Policy Institute of California, but California Forever would face huge obstacles if it tried to sell groundwater or river water, or use agriculture-designated water for a new city or cities.

Forever California’s website said it planned to use water from “multiple sources that we have obtained or that will be more fully developed.”

Farming couple McCormack and Medvitz, looking out over the Sacramento River last week, watched a grain ship pushing upstream. If Mark Twain had headed up the Sacramento in a riverboat in days long gone, he would have seen a similar landscape, Medvitz said, minus the wind turbines. The landscape, McCormack said, provides a unique sense of place. “It would be a shame,” she said, “to lose it.”

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