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The Farmers Had What the Billionaires Wanted

In Solano County, Calif., a who’s who of tech money is trying to build a city from the ground up. But some of the locals whose families have been there for generations don’t want to sell the land.

Solano County, California, the site of the proposed new city.Credit...Aaron Wojack for The New York Times

By Conor Dougherty

Reporting from Rio Vista, Calif.

Jan. 19, 2024Updated 1:42 p.m. ET

When Jan Sramek walked into the American Legion post in Rio Vista, Calif., for a town-hall meeting last month, everyone in the room knew that he was really just there to get yelled at.

For six years a mysterious company called Flannery Associates, which Mr. Sramek controlled, had upended the town of 10,000 by spending hundreds of millions of dollars trying to buy every farm in the area. Flannery made multimillionaires out of some owners and sparked feuds among others. It sued a group of holdouts who had refused its above-market offers, on the grounds that they were colluding for more.

The company was Rio Vista’s main source of gossip, yet until a few weeks before the meeting no one in the room had heard of Mr. Sramek or knew what Flannery was up to. Residents worried it could be a front for foreign spies looking to surveil a nearby Air Force base. One theory held the company was acquiring land for a new Disneyland.

Now the truth was standing in front of them. And somehow it was weirder than the rumors.

The truth was that Mr. Sramek wanted to build a city from the ground up, in an agricultural region whose defining feature was how little it had changed. The idea would have been treated as a joke if it weren’t backed by a group of Silicon Valley billionaires who included Michael Moritz, the venture capitalist; Reid Hoffman, the investor and co-founder of LinkedIn; and Laurene Powell Jobs, the founder of the Emerson Collective and the widow of the Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. They and others from the technology world had spent some $900 million on farmland in a demonstration of their dead seriousness about Mr. Sramek’s vision.

Rio Vista, part of Solano County, is technically within the San Francisco Bay Area, but its bait shops and tractor suppliers and Main Street lined with American flags can feel a state away. Mr. Sramek’s plan was billed as a salve for San Francisco’s urban housing problems. But paving over ranches to build a city of 400,000 wasn’t the sort of idea you’d expect a group of farmers to be enthused about.

As the TV cameras anticipated, a group of protesters had gathered in the parking lot to shake signs near pickup trucks. Inside, a crowd in jeans and boots sat in chairs, looking skeptical.

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