When Jan Sramek walked into the American Legion post in Rio Vista, Calif., for a town-hall assembly final month, everybody within the room knew that he was actually simply there to get yelled at.

For six years a mysterious company referred to as Flannery Associates, which Mr. Sramek managed, had upended the city of 10,000 by spending a whole bunch of hundreds of thousands of {dollars} attempting to purchase each farm within the space. Flannery made multimillionaires out of some house owners and sparked feuds amongst others. It sued a gaggle of holdouts who had refused its above-market gives, on the grounds that they had been colluding for extra.

The corporate was Rio Vista’s essential supply of gossip, but till a few weeks before the meeting nobody within the room had heard of Mr. Sramek or knew what Flannery was as much as. Residents nervous it could be a front for overseas spies seeking to surveil a close-by Air Pressure base. One principle held the corporate was buying land for a brand new Disneyland.

Now the reality was standing in entrance of them. And in some way it was weirder than the rumors.

The reality was that Mr. Sramek wished to construct a metropolis from the bottom up, in an agricultural area whose defining function was how little it had modified. The thought would have been handled as a joke if it weren’t backed by a group of Silicon Valley billionaires who included Michael Moritz, the enterprise capitalist; Reid Hoffman, the investor and co-founder of LinkedIn; and Laurene Powell Jobs, the founding father of the Emerson Collective and the widow of the Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. They and others from the know-how world had spent some $900 million on farmland in an indication of their useless seriousness about Mr. Sramek’s imaginative and prescient.

Rio Vista, a part of Solano County, is technically throughout the San Francisco Bay Space, however its bait outlets and tractor suppliers and Primary Road lined with American flags can really feel a state away. Mr. Sramek’s plan was billed as a salve for San Francisco’s city housing issues. However paving over ranches to construct a metropolis of 400,000 wasn’t the type of thought you’d anticipate a gaggle of farmers to be enthused about.

Because the TV cameras anticipated, a gaggle of protesters had gathered within the parking zone to shake indicators close to pickup vans. Inside, a crowd in denims and boots sat in chairs, trying skeptical.

Mr. Sramek, 36, who’s from the Czech Republic and had come to California to attempt to make it in start-ups, was now the middle of their economic system. Flannery had grow to be the biggest landowner within the area, amassing an space twice the dimensions of San Francisco.

Christine Mahoney, 63, whose great-grandfather established her household’s farm when Rutherford B. Hayes was president, advised me that, prefer it or not, Mr. Sramek was now her neighbor. Ms. Mahoney had refused a number of gives for her land, and Flannery’s lawsuit — an antitrust case in federal courtroom — described her as a conspirator who was out to bilk his firm.

However she had by no means met the person in particular person, so she got here to say howdy.

“You may be asking your self, ‘Why is that this man with a humorous accent right here?’” Mr. Sramek started the assembly.

He spent about 20 minutes pitching his plans earlier than submitting to questions and resentments. Individuals accused him of pushing small farms out of enterprise. They stated Flannery’s cash was turning households in opposition to one another.

“Good neighbors don’t sue their neighbors!” one man yelled to applause.

Mr. Sramek, who’s tall, intense and practiced within the artwork of holding eye contact, stayed up entrance after the assembly to glad-hand.

When Ms. Mahoney and her husband, Dan, 65, approached him, Mr. Sramek stated, “Hello, Christine!” as if they’d met a number of instances earlier than and he wasn’t presently suing her.

“I’d wish to welcome you as our neighbor, however it’s sort of troublesome,” Ms. Mahoney stated.

She talked about how a lot stress the lawsuit had placed on her household.

Mr. Sramek nodded, as if she had been speaking about another person, not him. Then he requested the couple to dinner. The Mahoneys agreed.

One key distinction between constructing an app and constructing a metropolis is {that a} metropolis requires permission. On Wednesday, Mr. Sramek’s firm formally filed a proposed poll initiative that will ask voters to purchase in. Particularly, the measure goals to amend a longstanding “orderly growth” ordinance that protects Solano County’s farms and open house by steering improvement to city areas.

Solano’s residents have persistently backed the city-centered-growth legal guidelines, so Mr. Sramek’s venture is sure to be controversial. To beat resistance, the initiative features a lengthy checklist of guarantees like new roads, cash to put money into downtowns throughout the county and a $400 million fund to assist Solano residents purchase houses.

Mr. Sramek additionally revealed that he hoped to construct instantly subsequent to Rio Vista, with a half-mile-wide park separating the outdated farming city from the brand new tech metropolis. Renderings that his firm launched this month painting a medium-density neighborhood that’s roughly the alternative of a subdivision, with a grid of rowhouses that lie a brief stroll from outlets and have quick access to bike lanes and bus stops. He stated the primary section of constructing may accommodate round 50,000 folks.

Even when the measure will get on the poll and passes, it is going to be one step on a path requiring approval from county, state and federal businesses — a protracted checklist of ifs that explains why massive initiatives are normally measured in many years, not the few years that Mr. Sramek appears to think about.

It’s a vital step, nevertheless. Past amending the ordinance, a win would stress county officers to work with Mr. Sramek, so opponents are already lining up. A bunch referred to as Solano Together, a mixture of agricultural and environmental organizations like Greenbelt Alliance, just lately created an internet site that characterizes the venture as dangerous sprawl that will destroy farms.

The struggle is one thing of a throwback. Whether or not it was paving over San Fernando Valley orange groves to construct out Los Angeles or ripping out apricot farms in what’s now Silicon Valley, California grew to become the nation’s largest state and economic system largely by buying and selling open and agricultural land for inhabitants and improvement.

That shifted within the Nineteen Sixties and Nineteen Seventies, when a backlash in opposition to the growth-first regime and its penchant for destroying landscapes helped create fashionable environmentalism. Within the half-century since, this flip has been codified in legal guidelines that intention to limit improvement to present cities and their edges. It has protected farms and open house, but additionally helped drive up the price of dwelling by making housing scarcer and costlier to construct.

Mr. Sramek framed his proposal as a backlash to the backlash, a part of an ideological venture to revive Californians’ urge for food for progress. If the state is severe about tackling its dire reasonably priced housing drawback, he argued, it doesn’t simply need to construct extra housing in locations like San Francisco and its suburbs — it additionally has to broaden the city footprint with new cities.

As a matter of coverage, that is exhausting to dismiss. That is politics, nevertheless, so the larger query is whether or not voters share his need to return California to an period of enlargement. And whether or not — after six years throughout which Mr. Sramek obfuscated his function in Flannery’s secret land acquisition, together with the corporate’s billionaire backers and true objective, all whereas pursuing farmers with aggressive techniques and lawsuits — they discover him reliable.

Christine and Dan Mahoney’s home seems to be onto a barn that claims 1877, the yr Ms. Mahoney’s great-grandfather constructed it.

After I met the couple for an interview at their home final yr, Ms. Mahoney had adorned the eating desk with black-and-white footage of relations in button attire and bonnets. Later we drove alongside roads named for her ancestors.

Winding via the hills, Ms. Mahoney ticked off parcels that belonged to the household, others that had been owned by neighbors and extra owned by Flannery. After I requested how she discerned the strains of possession in an expanse of yellow grassland, she stated: “You reside right here 100 years.”

Mr. Sramek, in the meantime, talks about progress in ethical phrases, as if progress and wealth are simpatico and essentially the most consequential individuals are those that construct large issues and a fortune alongside the best way.

Driving close to the Mahoneys’ ranch just lately, via the identical yellow hills, he posited that the combo of wealth and innovation that has exploded within the Bay Space has occurred solely a handful of instances in historical past. (Florence, Paris, London, New York, Chicago and “possibly L.A.” had been some others.) We had been 60 miles from San Francisco in a spot the place the tallest buildings are wind generators, however his message was that the area could possibly be an financial solar, and that bringing extra folks within the orbit was worthy of the trade-offs.

An immigrant and striver who at 22 was a co-author of a guide referred to as “Racing In the direction of Excellence,” Mr. Sramek acquired his first spurt of publicity at Goldman Sachs, the place the monetary press hailed him as a “Golden Boytrader and considered it newsworthy when he left, after two years of employment, to chase a much bigger dream in start-ups.

His tech profession was much less glowing. After Goldman, he moved from London to Zurich and began a company training firm referred to as Higher. It operated for 2 years and prompted a transfer to San Francisco, the place he based a social media firm, Memo, in 2015.

Memo was billed as a higher-minded model of Twitter and won praise from the enterprise capitalist Marc Andreessen. That reward was delivered on Twitter as a substitute of Memo, which was just about the story: Memo didn’t rack up customers and shut down after a yr.

His failures apart, Mr. Sramek was smitten with the Bay Space’s tradition of inventive capitalism. He was much less enamored with the precise place.

The legendary Silicon Valley was in actuality a bunch of workplace parks and cul-de-sacs the place subdivision-grade houses went for $2 million. The extra picturesque and concrete San Francisco was being consumed by rising rents and their attendant homeless issues.

Complaining about the price of dwelling, and the area’s incapability to repair it, had grow to be one thing of a aspect hustle for a lot of Bay Space chief executives. And after Memo, Mr. Sramek began searching for a giant disruptive thought for them to fund.

“If we return six or seven years, the favored hit within the press was ‘Silicon Valley is just not doing sufficient in the true world,’” he stated. “And I used to be sitting there engaged on this.”

Mr. Sramek likes to fish. The best way he tells it, round 2016 he and his girlfriend (now spouse) began making the one-hour drive from San Francisco to Rio Vista to catch bass on the Sacramento River. A type of journeys, driving previous pastures and grazing sheep, sparked an thought.

“What if you happen to may begin from scratch?” he stated.

In a state whose agricultural bounty has traditionally been a perform of shifting water nice distances, the world is one thing of an anachronism. For generations, households just like the Mahoneys have practiced “dryland farming,” which suggests they depend on rain, not irrigation.

The Mahoneys discuss this the identical approach they discuss their land and household: with an emphasis on custom and the romance of continuity. Mr. Sramek described the land as “not prime.”

The phrase angered a number of farmers on the Rio Vista city assembly, however in greenback phrases it’s correct. On the time of Mr. Sramek’s first fishing journey, land within the space was buying and selling round $4,000 an acre — a pittance in contrast with a Central Valley almond orchard (about $10,000 to $55,000 per acre) or a Napa Valley winery (anyplace from $50,000 to greater than $500,000 per acre), in response to the California chapter of the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers.

Mr. Sramek beginning doing analysis and shortly discovered himself immersed in zoning coverage and poring over outdated improvement maps dreaming of a start-up metropolis. Traders had been initially reluctant, he stated, so he borrowed $1 million from mates and banks to place a deposit on a handful of properties, then employed consultants and land-use attorneys to evaluate what it might take to construct there.

By now Mr. Sramek was nicely networked. He had completed a fellowship at Y Combinator, the start-up incubator. He was in a guide membership with companions at Sequoia Capital. He was mates with billionaires like Patrick and John Collison, the sibling founders of the funds firm Stripe.

The Collisons grew to become two of Flannery’s first traders. Mr. Andreessen and Chris Dixon, additionally of the Andreessen Horowitz enterprise capital agency, joined quickly after, together with Mr. Moritz, who was Sequoia’s chairman. All of them helped Mr. Sramek solicit others.

In a 2017 word to potential traders I obtained, Mr. Moritz wrote that if “completed proper” the venture may assist relieve congestion and housing costs within the Bay Space, and mused in regards to the potential to experiment with new sorts of governance. It is also spectacularly worthwhile, he stated: Mr. Moritz estimated that traders may make 10 instances their cash even when they simply acquired the land rezoned, and way more if and when it was developed.

Flannery Associates was named for Flannery Street, which borders the primary property Mr. Sramek purchased. Except for that element and its Delaware incorporation, residents and public officers may discover virtually nothing about its shareholders or intentions. Simply that it wished lots of land, didn’t care in regards to the value and was prepared to strong-arm house owners when cash didn’t work.

Along with working their very own land, many farmers within the space lease parcels the place they develop crops and graze animals. As Flannery consumed increasingly more property, folks like Ian Anderson discovered themselves within the uncomfortable place of attempting to rebuff its gives for parcels they owned — whereas on the identical time farming land they rented from Flannery.

Mr. Anderson realized how weak he was after an area newspaper quoted him saying that the corporate had begun insisting on short-term leases and that this made it more and more troublesome to farm. Later, Flannery’s lawyer despatched him a letter informing him that it was terminating a number of leases overlaying 1000’s of acres.

“The Andersons have made it clear that they don’t like Flannery,” in response to the letter. “The Andersons are in fact free to have their opinions, however they can’t anticipate that Flannery will proceed to only be a punching bag and lease property to them.”

Consultant John Garamendi, a Democrat from the world, characterised strikes like this as “mobster techniques.” The larger concern was that Flannery’s holdings had grown into an enormous mass that butted in opposition to Travis Air Pressure Base on three sides.

The proximity to the bottom alarmed each the county and the Division of Protection, which prompted native officers and members of Congress to name for investigations. The investigations elevated the thriller of Flannery Associates right into a mainstay on native TV information.

“The F.B.I. was investigating this, the State Division was investigating this, the Treasury Division was investigating this — all of the native electeds had been attempting to get info and calling their legislators,” stated Consultant Mike Thompson, one other Democrat from the world.

The corporate remained silent.

Mr. Sramek stated Flannery had operated in secret to stop landowners from jacking up costs, and defended the lawsuits as simply. He argued that whereas some farmers didn’t wish to promote, most had completed so willingly — at costs no different purchaser may supply.

“We paid approach over market worth, and created a whole bunch of millionaires within the course of,” he stated. “We’re glad that we’ve been in a position to settle most of our disputes, and we’re open to settling the remaining ones.”

By 2023, Mr. Sramek and his traders had been in deep. Flannery had spent some $900 million shopping for 60,000 acres. The primary two rounds of funding, at about $10 million every, had ballooned to a number of extra rounds at $100 million every. (Mr. Sramek stated the corporate had now raised “greater than $900 million” however wouldn’t be extra particular.)

Huge traders begot greater traders, and the checklist expanded to a roster of Silicon Valley heavyweights together with Mr. Hoffman and Ms. Powell Jobs.

The corporate’s gives grew to become so beneficiant that many farmers determined they couldn’t refuse.

The Mahoneys offered Flannery just a few hundred acres early on. (Their land is owned by a number of completely different entities and exhausting to tally general, however within the Nineteen Sixties Ms. Mahoney’s father advised a newspaper that he had 16,000 acres within the space.) However as Flannery wolfed extra of the land round them, Ms. Mahoney stated, she realized that one thing large was taking place and that their complete farming enterprise could possibly be in danger. So the household stopped promoting to Flannery. The corporate endured with extra gives, nevertheless, enhancing phrases and growing costs to ranges that will have netted tens of hundreds of thousands of {dollars}. The household continued to say no.

Flannery arrived whereas the Mahoneys had been within the midst of transition. Over 150 years, the household’s firm, R. Emigh Livestock, had expanded from two dozen lambs to one in every of largest sheep farmers in California. Ms. Mahoney’s father was in his 90s (he died final yr) and he or she was passing management to her son Ryan, who stated his want was to remain there till he was in his 90s, too.

You wouldn’t comprehend it from her denims or penchant for nostalgia, however Ms. Mahoney had spent her profession working an organization, one whose enterprise was elevating lambs and cattle. She was, like Mr. Sramek, a C.E.O.

And after years of forwards and backwards, one factor Flannery’s entreaties had made clear was that there was one property the Mahoneys owned that it coveted above the others: Goose Haven Ranch. However Goose Haven was the one the household was most protecting of. It had been the middle of the lambing operation lengthy sufficient that the street main as much as it was designed for wagon site visitors.

Elsewhere within the county, Flannery had began shopping for into farms by buying shares from members of the family who wished out, then turning into what amounted to unwelcome companions with those who remained. Two of those preparations led to lawsuits between Flannery and the opposite house owners. Each settled, however one in every of them netted a trove of emails and textual content messages amongst a number of neighbors together with the Mahoneys.

In Could, Flannery used these messages to file an antitrust suit in opposition to the Mahoneys and several other holdouts. The go well with contended that the farmers had been colluding to boost costs, describing them as “rich landowners who noticed a chance to conspire, collude, value repair and illegally overcharge Flannery.” It requested for $510 million in damages.

The grievance describes the messages (like Ms. Mahoney writing to a neighbor, “That’s nice that we are able to help one another!”) as “a smoking gun” proving that the defendants did wish to promote however at even greater costs than Flannery was providing.

In a joint movement to dismiss, attorneys for the Mahoneys and different defendants described Flannery’s lawsuit as “a ham-fisted intimidation approach” designed to smother them with authorized charges.

Even after being sued, the Mahoneys nonetheless had no thought who Flannery truly was.

In August, The New York Occasions broke the information of who was behind the purchases. Mr. Sramek confirmed his function, and shortly topped his LinkedIn profile with a brand new title: chief govt of California Eternally, the corporate’s new identify.

He has been in marketing campaign mode ever since, assembly with elected officers, union leaders and environmental teams. California Eternally has opened 4 workplaces throughout the county, and Solano’s freeways at the moment are plastered with California Eternally billboards.

In a state the place it may possibly take years to get a duplex authorized, Mr. Sramek appears to have calculated that his venture is simply too large to fail. Builders, planners and attorneys I spoke to all anticipated the venture to both by no means occur or take no less than 20 years. Whether or not out of bluster, delusion or confidence, Mr. Sramek, who just lately purchased a home in close by Fairfield, stated he had promised his spouse that their toddler daughter would begin faculty within the improvement he wished to construct.

He didn’t discover some secret hack that may make California a better place to construct. Fairly, he believes the state’s angle towards progress is altering. Californians, he thinks, have grown pissed off — with punishing housing prices, with homelessness, with the state’s incapability to finish initiatives just like the high-speed rail line that was supposed to attach the Bay Space and Los Angeles however has stalled. So simply possibly his will, and gobs of cash, can create a brand new posture towards progress.

“There’s a cultural second the place we understand the pendulum has gone too far,” Mr. Sramek stated. “We are able to’t say we’re about financial alternative and working-class Californians are leaving the state yearly.”

Final yr’s occasion in Rio Vista was held on the finish of lambing season in December. Earlier than the assembly, I dropped by a barn with the Mahoneys the place a gaggle of “bummers” — lambs born weak or to overburdened ewes — had been in sawdust pens consuming milk. They’d be chops in lower than a yr, and Ms. Mahoney cooed to them between my questions.

I requested her a crass however apparent one: why the cash from Mr. Sramek, these tens of hundreds of thousands, wasn’t engaging.

“Everyone has their value, proper?” she stated. “I’ve heard that so many instances. ‘Everyone has their quantity — what’s your quantity?’ I assume I haven’t discovered it but.”

“When God calls us house, that’s our quantity,” Mr. Mahoney joked. “Completely completely different philosophy.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Sramek returned to the American Legion put up in Rio Vista. This time he had arrived as a part of a kickoff occasion for the poll initiative. Neighbors and protesters had returned however had been prohibited from going inside, the place slides of maps and renderings had been introduced to the press, and particulars about design had been mentioned.

The maps had a curious element: On the sting of the proposed neighborhood’s downtown, was Goose Haven Ranch.

The night time earlier than the assembly, the Mahoneys offered it. They acquired about $23 million.



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