RIO VISTA, Calif. - For years, a shadowy company has been buying up land near the Travis Air Force Base, bordering the military installment on three sides.
No one seemed to know who was paying above-market prices, and, more importantly, what were their intentions.
As the company Flannery Associates reportedly spent $800 million to acquire tract after tract in Solano County, the congressman who represents the area raised the fear that it was a national security issue, because of its proximity to the air force base.
"We have no idea where the $900 million came from to buy land at several times its nominal value," Rep. John Garameni (D-Fairfield) told ABC 10 on August 23. "We have a suspicion it may very well be Chinese money. That money may or may not be tied to the Chinese Liberation Army."
But now, the mystery of the 50,000-acre land grab has been solved and it was no international conspiracy.
It was a group of billionaires, some based here in the Bay Area, who were gobbling up farms and other properties, the New York Times reported.
Among the billionaires are Marc Andreesen, founder of Andreesen Horowitz, Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, and Michael Moritz, a billionaire venture capitalist who finances the news outlet The San Francisco Standard.
Marc Andreessen, co-founder and general partner of Andreessen Horowitz, speaks during the TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco 2016 Summit in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016. TechCrunch Disrupt, the world's leading authority in debuting revolutionary startups, gathers the brightest entrepreneurs, investors, hackers, and tech fans for on-stage interviews. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
It appears that Flannery Associates motivation is to build a city of the future.
Residents in the area were recently surveyed on if they would support a "new city with tens of thousands of new homes, a large solar energy farm, orchards with over a million new trees, and over ten thousand acres of new parks and open space," SFGATE reported.
Such a project would likely take decades to bring to fruition and require significant public discussion to reshape so much land.
But the group has been almost entirely secretive in its efforts. Flannery Associates never contacted elected leaders in the surrounding town of Rio Vista.
The Chronicle published renderings of what the ‘California Forever’ tech-topia would look like.
"Flannery has never contacted anybody in Rio Vista, nobody in the city government. Not a word. And we’re surrounded by it. So whatever decisions they make, it affects our city directly, both good and bad," Rio Vista Mayor Ron Kott told KQED.
Plans for the new city would essentially surround Rio Vista, a city of roughly 10,000 residents about 20 miles northeast of Antioch along the Sacramento River. Kott said a new city would strain an already taxed water system, as well as the public transportation system.
Flannery Associates, meanwhile, has already alleged that some farmers have conspired to drive up the price of real estate.
Flannery Associates sued seven Solano County farmers in March for engaging in "an illegal price-fixing conspiracy regarding the sale of their properties," the lawsuit states.
"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 in the Jepson Prairie and Montezuma Hills area of Solano County, California," the lawsuit continued.
The lawsuit highlights that Flannery Associates has purchased roughly 140 properties for over $800 million, and how the group paid "a substantial premium to fair market values."
Flannery Associates say they bought around 2,500 acres for $20.8 million from Thomas McCormack, a director of the Bank of Rio Vista whose family founded and ran the bank for nearly 100 years.
But it takes issue with the dozen or so landowners who are holding out. Flannery Associates offered many of the holdouts $15,000 an acre for their land, roughly 32 times what they paid for it.
"At the last Flannery offer, the BLK Defendants would have made approximately $45 million, the Mahoney Defendants would have made approximately $100 million, and the Anderson Defendants would have made approximately $60 million," the lawsuit states. "These amounts are 2-3 times more than what these properties are worth in the open market, and what anyone other than Flannery would pay for any comparable property in this area."
Some of the families have since settled with Flannery Associates, but others remain steadfast and have the backing of Rep. Garamendi.
"These are five-, six-generation family farmers in the area. Some refused to sell, so Flannery filed a lawsuit against seven family farmers," Garamendi told KQED. "Never in all my years have I ever heard of somebody suing a group of farmers to try to force them to sell their land."
The billionaire-group has tepid support of another local congressman calling the group’s efforts not a "plan," but a "vision."
"I am focused on ensuring that our community has a voice in any project that will fundamentally change the makeup of the county and I will continue to meet with Flannery as necessary to carry out that responsibility," said Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Santa Rosa).
But Thompson also criticized Flannery Associates’ secretive efforts and said he stands by local farmers and wants to ensure the project will not hurt national security.
"Solano County is a tight-knit community, and it is going to be a long road for Flannery to restore trust and move forward with their proposed vision," Thompson said in a statement. "As one of the representatives of Solano County, I want to make sure that a group of Silicon Valley billionaires do not steal family farmers’ ability to farm their land. My concerns have always been on national security and food security, and a development of the magnitude they are proposed could harm Travis Air Force Base in the long term. They need to make sure that nothing they do harms Travis, puts our national security at risk, or disadvantages family farmers."