In August, the New York Times revealed the identity of a buyer who has been scooping up parcels of land in the hinterland between San Francisco and Sacramento, the capital of the state of California, for several years.
It is a company called Flannery Associates, created by Jan Sramek, a former banker who founded a continuing education company.
The organization recently said on its website that it has acquired more than 20,200 acres of land for its "California Forever" project, with backers such as LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, Steve Jobs' widow Laurene Powell Jobs, and tech star investor Marc Andreessen.
According to court documents, the tech moguls have already paid more than $800 million to realize their vision of a city in the middle of nowhere.
Near a plot purchased by Flannery near Rio Vista, California, September 15, 2023 © JOSH EDELSON / AFP
"It wasn't decided at Burning Man (a festival with utopian ideology) by taking hallucinogenic mushrooms," said John Sweeney, a landowner in Solano County, now surrounded by land bought by Flannery.
According to several residents interviewed by AFP, the company began buying land in this county, between the city of Fairfield and Travis Air Force Base, about five years ago.
Cassandra Dana remembers receiving her first unsolicited offer from Flannery to buy her ranch in 2018. They haven't stopped calling him since.
"Now when they call and give me their identity, I hang up immediately," she said. "They even went to my eldest daughter and asked... to sell without my agreement."
Mr. Sweeney was contacted five years ago by a group purporting to be interested in his property, in order to preserve it for agriculture.
According to him, the inhabitants of this close-knit community have been the target of "all kinds of stratagems. It was pretty deceitful in general."
According to the project's website, the new city will be "home to agriculture and green energy industries that feed and sustainably power our state, an ideal place to live for the middle class, and our nation's busiest air base."
It "will include a variety of land uses: a new city, but also solar farms and open spaces, including both agriculture and protection of the natural environment."
Horses graze on a plot bought by Flannery near Travis Air Force Base, California, September 15, 2023 © JOSH EDELSON / AFP
But the road to utopia is paved with pitfalls.
Flannery has filed a lawsuit against some landowners in federal court, accusing them of ganging up against her to get higher selling prices. The company is seeking half a billion dollars.
"Listening to them, it sounds like there were big meetings to decide how to scam Flannery," Sweeney said. "Well, no. Everyone just knew that if we waited longer, we would get more money. It makes sense."
Flannery declined a request for an interview.
The mayor of Fairfield, Catherine Moy, says she only learned a few weeks ago of the existence of this land acquisition campaign.
"We're trying to figure out what's going on," she said. Flannery bought land around the air base, which is used to transport equipment to Ukraine and other parts of the world, according to the elected official.
"At this point, I oppose it. Everything that threatens Travis Air Force Base threatens my city and the country."
For now, these lands are occupied by livestock, wind turbines, farmers and ranchers who have long coexisted in harmony with the base, she says.
"This city project breaks my heart because it will ruin our entire rural area, all these beautiful stretches of land," says Cassandra Dana, tending to a small herd of goats.
Moy wrote a letter to the state's governor, Gavin Newsom, expressing her concerns.
Last week, Newsom said the project also surprised him and wanted to know more.
Wind turbines on a plot purchased by Flannery near Rio Vista, California, September 15, 2023 © JOSH EDELSON / AFP
The project website does not give practical details, such as the water supply needed to build the new city.
This project would "turn the countryside into a modern San Francisco, I guess," laughs John Sweeney.
© 2023 AFP