When it comes to investments, tech billionaires are eager to get their hands on a lot of things, but agricultural acreage isn’t usually at the top of the list. However, farmland is of great concern to Flannery Associates, a company spearheaded and backed by a handful of big tech industry players. Flannery has been gobbling up farms and agricultural parcels since Jan Sramek, founder of data platform Memo Inc., established the company in 2017. Now Flannery has amassed a portfolio of 50,000 acres at a total reported investment of approximately $800 million. So, what does Flannery want with all that farmland? Well, the company isn’t planning to create an exclusive billionaire playground, as many in Solano County had feared. Instead, Flannery wants to transform the pastures and farms into California Forever, a master-planned community that would essentially amount to a new city in the predominantly agricultural county.
Having the land in hand doesn’t mean Flannery’s vision is moving toward realization. There are obstacles. Flannery has ruffled the feathers of more than a few farm owners along the way, local officials have been wary of the company’s initially secret intentions since the land-purchasing program began, and there’s the very big issue of rezoning. Flannery may be forced to sit on its plots of farmland for quite some time.
Flannery is a group of tech world heavy hitters, which is precisely why many citizens of Solano County have been fearing that the firm will develop an exclusive, real-life Shangri-La on the land it has snapped up. Investors include the likes of software mastermind Marc Andreessen and his venture capitalist firm Andreessen Horowitz. Co-founders of payment processing software Stripe, Patrick and John Collison, the latter of whom became the youngest self-made billionaire in 2017, are also backers of Flannery. Laurene Powell Jobs, a philanthropist and investor who co-founded environment and education-focused organization Emerson Collective with her late husband, Steve Jobs, adds a certain cachet to the team. The list of billionaire investors goes on, nearly a dozen in total. The yearslong accrual of farmland and the veil of secrecy surrounding development plans have incited the suspicion and, in some instances, the ire of locals.
In September 2023, Flannery finally presented Solano County with the long-awaited details of a project called California Forever and revealed the reason for the secrecy. As noted on the Flannery website, the firm asserts, “The only way to avoid creating a rush of reckless short-term land speculation was to not share our specific plans until we finished acquiring the properties.” Much of California Forever sounds like any other newly developed sustainable enclave. The proposal calls for a community of safe, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods with residences of various sizes at various price points with new pathways to middle-class ownership, retail options, restaurants, and schools. California Forever would also be steeped in green, with solar energy farms and swaths of open space, including orchards and 10,000 acres of parks. Some of the land would even continue to be used for agricultural purposes and habitat conservation.
The watercolor renderings of California Forever paint a picture of happy people in pleasant neighborhoods. It’s not a tech-titan paradise, Flannery vows. The firm envisions California Forever as a secure, sustainable community of walkable neighborhoods with most of life’s amenities within easy reach. The vision behind Flannery’s plans is perhaps not so uncommon among developers of the mixed-use communities that are popping up across the country. Yet, as contemporary and smart as the project may seem, there is an element of yesteryear to it.
In conceiving California Forever, Flannery says it is “looking back to go forward” and describes the project as centering on “going back to the basics that were once the norm across America.” The “basics that were once the norm” can mean a lot of things. Are we talking about a city that meets the basics when it comes to human needs or societal benefits? Site plans have yet to be released, but Flannery has brought together a design team to flesh out the details. The group of Bay Area-based experts presently includes more than 12 individuals and companies, including CMG Landscape Architecture, EKI Environment & Water, and Sitelab Urban Studio.
Regardless of the final design, California Forever would change the very face and character of Solano County, where, according to the Solano County Agriculture Department, 62 percent of the land is home to agricultural businesses involving livestock, grapes for wine production, as well as other crops. Agricultural activities and related businesses account for a substantial portion of Solano County’s economy, generating approximately $1.3 billion in annual gross output value and providing more than 10,000 ranch-based and indirect farm-related jobs. Flannery says California Forever would generate thousands of “good paying” jobs.
Even with the plans for California Forever now unveiled, there is still bad blood in Solano County, and a great deal of it stems from the land acquisitions. Many of the properties that Flannery purchased were family-owned farms that had been home to and operated by generations of family members. There have even been reports that Flannery utilized unsavory methods to coerce reluctant farm owners into selling. Flannery, which denies allegations of bullying or any wrongdoing in its land acquisitions, initiated legal action against a group of more than 50 landowners, citing illegal price-fixing. “This is a simple case about a group of wealthy landowners who saw an opportunity to conspire, collude, price fix, and illegally overcharge Flannery, a buyer who had approached these landowners on an individual basis to buy their properties,” according to the complaint. “But the Conspirators wanted to make hundreds of millions. To do so, they formed a secret conspiracy to drive up prices to supracompetitive levels by eliminating the free market competition in the sale of properties that would have otherwise occurred among the Conspirators.”
The defendants in the case contend Flannery’s lawsuit is baseless and assert in their response to the complaint that their “demand for supracompetitive prices or refusal to sell may be readily explained by the undisputed fact that Defendants were not actively looking to sell and therefore were not motivated sellers.” In the response, the defendants also noted that “Flannery’s own aggressive tactics” suggested that the land was more valuable than previously indicated, which prompted the defendants to negotiate accordingly.
It’s not just the locals who are weighing in on Flannery’s plan. American Farmland Trust (AFT), a national association promoting the conservation of agriculture, released a statement advocating for Flannery to develop its project based on the Better Built Cities model, which encourages compact development that saves farmland and ranchland from conversion. There’s something to be said for the Better Built Cities model. Per AFT research, 2,000 acres of U.S. farmland are being redeveloped or eliminated from production daily, which means as many as 18 million acres of farmland will disappear come 2040. “Once this finite resource is developed, it will never return to agriculture. This will impact millions of livelihoods, including many in Solano County, as well as the nation’s food supply,” AFT wrote in its statement on the California Forever project. Furthermore, the gross value of Solano County agricultural production (minus profit or loss or the extended benefits agriculture generates in the local economy) declined 4 percent year-over-year in 2022, primarily due to extreme weather events, according to the Solano County Crop and Livestock Report.
Flannery is now engaging in a community relations tour of sorts. The firm is conducting town halls across Solano County, and it announced in early November the establishment of its California Forever Community Advisory Committee, consisting of 21 members from a diverse cross-section of the county who will spearhead outreach efforts and take a continuous pulse of the community’s stance on the project.
Even if Flannery can bring the majority of citizens over to its side, it still has to contend with a hurdle that may prove insurmountable. The majority of the acreage Flannery has acquired for California Forever is zoned exclusively for agricultural uses as per Solano County’s voter-supported General Plan and Orderly Growth Ordinance. So, a large percentage of the 50,000 acres Flannery has assembled will require the alteration of land designation and zoning. Those changes can only be made with voter approval. A measure that would allow for the requisite status adjustments is expected to be on the ballot for residents to approve or reject in November 2024.
Billionaire-backed plans for developing utopian-like cities have been gaining steam over the years, with most such proposals centering on visions of high-tech mini-metropolises. In 2017, Bill Gates shelled out $80 million on the purchase of 25,000 acres outside Phoenix, Arizona, with the plan of developing a smart city named Belmont. Elon Musk has floated more than one plan for developing his own city. Most recently, the billionaire owner of X would set aside a portion of the millions of acres of his newly acquired farmland in the Greater Austin, Texas, area for the development of Snailbrook, a community designed to accommodate employees of Musk’s SpaceX, Tesla, and Boring Company businesses. These billionaire developers have the funds to create genuine utopian towns. But in some communities, especially rural agricultural locations like eastern Solano County, many may not be quick to embrace what would constitute a major change. In its purchase of 50,000 acres for the creation of California Forever, Flannery may very well have put the cart before the horse. The firm has a year to convince the voters of Solano County to get that warm and fuzzy feeling about the proposed development.