Home Business A terrestrial mystery is solved in California. Now the political fight begins.

A terrestrial mystery is solved in California. Now the political fight begins.

A terrestrial mystery is solved in California.  Now the political fight begins.

Jan Sramek was 15 years old when he first tried to get a government to do something he wanted. Back then, he was an internet and sci-fi obsessed teenager growing up in Drevohostice in the Czech Republic.

The problem was that his town of 1,400 only had dial-up Internet service. He convinced the local government to pay an Internet service provider to provide the city with a broadband connection. They even paid her a commission for it, Sramek wrote in “Racing Towards Excellence,” a sort of self-help book for ambitious young people that she co-wrote in 2009.

Sramek’s next campaign could be more profitable. It could also be longer, harder, and, in all likelihood, nastier.

The revelation last week that Mr. Sramek is leading a group of Silicon Valley moguls in a bold plan to build a new city in a undulating area of ​​farms and windmills in Northern California was the unofficial start of what that promises to become a long and costly political policy. Campaign.

In a state where land politics is so difficult that it can take years to build a duplex, it could take a decade of processing before even a shovel is raised for the project.

That kind of schedule will likely test the patience of investors, including venture capitalists Michael Moritz, Marc Andreessen and Chris Dixon, as well as LinkedIn co-founder, venture capitalist and Democratic donor Reid Hoffman, and founder Laurene Powell Jobs. . from the Emerson Collective, who are used to the fast-paced and loosely regulated world of technology.

The first thing, in all probability, is the elections. Solano County has a long-standing slow-growth ordinance that county voters would likely have to overturn before any major construction can begin.

After that comes a series of environmental rules, inevitable lawsuits, and potential run-ins with the state Air Resources Board, Water Resources Control Board, the Public Utilities Commission, and the Department of Transportation, not to mention the planning commission. and the board of supervisors who oversee the use of the land. in Solano County.

Some experienced developers say the project’s chances are so remote that they’ll be stunned if it comes to fruition. “I hope they succeed,” said Mark Friedman, a longtime Sacramento real estate developer, “but it seems like a bunch of techies with a lot of money and a lot of arrogance are jumping into another business that they can’t. understand.”

Sramek declined to comment Monday, with a spokesperson referring to an earlier statement from the project’s financial backers: “We are excited to begin working with Solano County residents and elected officials, as well as the Base Travis Air Force”.

Over the past five years, the group has used a company called Flannery Associates to spend about $900 million buying tens of thousands of acres of farmland throughout Solano County, in the far north eastern part of the area. San Francisco Bay. The purchase of so much land by a company whose business and intentions were unclear had stoked fear throughout the region and led two members of Congress to launch federal investigations.

The fact that no one at the company has tried to assuage those fears (most likely because they were concerned that coming out would drive up the price of land) has created a long line of angry elected officials.

“We involved the FBI and the Treasury,” John Garamendi, a Democrat and congressman from the area, said in a recent interview. Although representatives of Flannery had contacted his office for a meeting, he said, he did not know who they were or what they were doing until The New York Times revealed it to him last week.

Now Flannery is struggling to go from stealth mode to charm mode. He has hired political consultants and has contacted supervisors, the governor’s office and members of Congress. Over time, the group is likely to appeal to voters with a full-blown political campaign focused on economic development.

Although solidly within the Bay Area, Solano is the poorest county in the region. The household income of $87,770 is about two-thirds of the median income of $141,562 in Santa Clara County, the heart of Silicon Valley. It’s also a geographic mix that includes parched farmland and Travis Air Force Base, the US military’s busiest airport and gateway to the Pacific, along with cities like Vallejo, a blue-collar town that has become a haven. for construction and service workers who are affected by prices. of the Inner Bay Area.

Flannery’s purchases are concentrated in the undeveloped eastern half of the county and consist of a checkerboard of parcels. A part of that land seems to be destined for the hypothetical city, whose precise location is still unclear. The rest could be used as political tokens to create conservation programs, green energy projects, and recreational services in an attempt to curry favor with politicians and voters.

Whatever campaign Flannery ends up running will likely also include promising jobs for voters in cities like Vallejo and Fairfield in exchange for allowing him to build on sparsely populated farms about 45 minutes away.

On Sunday, in Rio Vista, a city of 10,000 along the Sacramento River, residents were still absorbing the prospect of billionaires turning a stretch of open fields into a new city. Many were relieved to learn the identity of the mystery buyer of land in the area, but also fearful of the potential impact of the proposal.

“It’s not crowded,” said Ashley Morrill, 40, who works at a sports shooting range in an unincorporated community called Birds Landing. “There are many windmills. It’s in the middle of nowhere. You can’t get public services here. There is no public water or sewage.”

Some in the area were still stunned by the secrecy that had been veiled by the land sales. Theories ranged from wind farms to a new Disneyland to an imagined plot involving Chinese intelligence and a new port.

“A real estate agent came to my house on Christmas Day 2018 with an offer to buy my property,” said John Sweeney, who lives in Denvern, an unincorporated community next to Travis Air Force Base. “At the time, land here was selling for less than $2,000 an acre and they were offering $10,000 an acre.”

Sweeney said he did not sell, but passed the offer on to his father-in-law, who did. After closing the deal, he began tracking Flannery’s purchases on Facebook.

Now residents have new questions: How does a city come to be thanks to a single owner? Will the proposal increase the prices of adjacent land? Will this lead to gentrification in what is now a pastoral city?

Flannery’s speech will have to address those and even more pressing concerns, according to state political consultants. The project’s proximity to Travis Air Force Base is likely to draw federal pushback. Powerful labor groups will need to be persuaded that the plan will adequately benefit unions. Environmental groups have already begun to speak out against it, arguing that housing should be built closer to population centers.

David Townsend, a Democratic consultant with decades of experience on land use issues in Northern California, said local opposition would likely also be significant in an agricultural county where many longtime residents had moved to escape development and the traffic.

“What happens in these things is people show up in red T-shirts yelling that a bunch of rich guys who don’t even live here want to put 20,000 more cars on our roads, and what do we get in return? A couple of parks? Townsend said, adding: “Something like this could take years and years.”

Holly Secon contributed reporting.


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