Silicon Valley billionaires secretly buy up land for new California city

Not just a company town - it's the new feudal age

A gaggle of tech billionaires want to start their own metropolis in California, and they've spent the past five years buying up thousands of acres of land north of the San Francisco Bay Area to do it.

No, we're not talking about a new fantasy city in Morro Bay - this dream city of the future lies near Silicon Valley and San Francisco on the north end of San Pablo Bay, and would be created in vacant tracts of land in Solano County - if the planned metropolis ever comes to fruition. 

The move is being spearheaded by a mysterious company known as Flannery Associates, led by founder and former Goldman Sachs trader Jan Sramek. Along with Sramek, investors include LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman, Marc Andreessen, venture capitalist Michael Moritz, and even Laurene Powell Jobs, wife of late Apple boss Steve Jobs. 

It's unclear how much each has invested, the New York Times said in its report of Flannery's plans. 

Until recently, news of Flannery's scheme was kept from Solano locals, such as Fairfield, California mayor Catherine Moy. She figured out who was buying up property in the area for far more than the asking price by going to the county assessor's office and looking at the records. 

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Moy, who didn't immediately respond to requests for comment, has been posting about the mystery land grab on Facebook for years, the Times said, most recently expressing concerns about the purchase of land surrounding Travis Air Force Base - which is the busiest AFB in the US. One hopes the new city homes will be soundproofed.  

Since then, Flannery has filed a lawsuit [PDF] against local property owners, accusing them of colluding to boost property prices. Court records indicate that some of the property owners have settled with Flannery, while others have continued to contest the claims of collusion and asked the suit be dismissed [PDF]. 

None of this, obviously, proves Flannery wants to build a sprawling city that's as walkable as Paris, New York, or London, which in theory could generate thousands of jobs and provide housing near the crowded Bay Area region. But pitches sent to investors by Moritz and reportedly seen by the NYT indicate just that. 

Zoning laws and other complications

Moritz reportedly admitted that California's notoriously tricky zoning laws could "clearly be challenging" for the future of the billionaire-backed metropolis.

That means Flannery will likely have to get its plans approved by a vote of Solano County residents, thus the scheme is anything but assured, given Northern California's NIMBY tendencies.

Flannery representatives have begun reaching out to local elected officials and leadership at Travis AFB to discuss their plans. Locals also reportedly began receiving text and email polls asking for their thoughts on a ballot initiative to build "a new city with tens of thousands of new homes, a large solar energy farm, orchards with over a million new trees, and over 10,000 acres of new parks and open space."

But there's at least one problem with this idyllic vision: Solano County regularly faces serious droughts and while it's not in one currently, a look at historic conditions (bottom of this page) show that it's been incredibly dry in the region until earlier this year.  

According to Moy, the area also has poor transportation infrastructure already clogged by commuters traveling to the Bay Area. Oh, and it is also prone to wildfires. "It seems very pie in the sky," Moy said. 

Stop trying to build cities in the desert, billionaires

Flannery Town, or whatever it would end up being called, is hardly the first future supercity to be proposed by the ultra-wealthy, nor the first to want to plop itself down in a region that's generally inhospitable to human habitation. 

Elon Musk, for example, has been buying up thousands of acres in Bastrop County, Texas, east of Austin, reportedly to build a city to be used for employees at the nearby Tesla Gigafactory and Boring Company facilities. Bastrop County, like Solano, suffers frequent droughts; all of the county is currently in extreme or exceptional drought conditions, and is considered to be incredibly vulnerable to external stressors on human health - like drought and heat.  

Telosa, another billionaire dream city that's the brainchild of former Walmart eCommerce US CEO Marc Lore, hasn't decided on a location yet, but is reportedly considering sites in the desert between Nevada, Arizona and Utah. Again, not the most hospitable of places before human infrastructure made things worse.

To be sure, there's an argument to be made that building entirely new urban centers based on sustainable design that could be beneficial to the environment. Living environments designed around the 15-minute city concept, which proposed communities like Telosa have adopted, would mean shrinking one's daily need to commute to near zero and could ease traffic congestion and emissions. 

And, in the context of billionaire business people buying up land to house workers, the concept of company towns is, of course, not new.

But as architect and former American Institute of Architects President Carl Elefante said, "The most sustainable building is the one that is already built."

Per its lawsuit, Flannery has enough cash to offer $15,000 per acre to Solano residents. Rather than tossing billions of dollars at another testament to our failure to adapt to climate change, maybe some of that cash could go toward improving things in San Francisco, New York, or another overcrowded city. 

Of course, this would mean less profit for billionaires wishing to become the new landed gentry of their own private fiefdoms, so hooray for our future desert burbclaves. ®

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