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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 firm known as Flannery Associates, which Mr. Sramek managed, had upended the city of 10,000 by spending lots of of hundreds of thousands of {dollars} making an attempt to purchase each farm within the space. Flannery made multimillionaires out of some homeowners and sparked feuds amongst others. It sued a gaggle of holdouts who had refused its above-market affords, on the grounds that they had been colluding for extra.

The corporate was Rio Vista’s predominant supply of gossip, but till a couple of weeks earlier than the assembly nobody within the room had heard of Mr. Sramek or knew what Flannery was as much as. Residents frightened it could be a front for overseas spies trying to surveil a close-by Air Power base. One concept 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 needed to construct a metropolis from the bottom up, in an agricultural area whose defining function was how little it had modified. The concept would have been handled as a joke if it weren’t backed by a gaggle 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 illustration 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 retailers and tractor suppliers and Predominant Avenue 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 form of concept 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 financial system. Flannery had turn out to be the most important landowner within the area, amassing an space twice the scale of San Francisco.

Christine Mahoney, 63, whose great-grandfather established her household’s farm when Rutherford B. Hayes was president, instructed me that, prefer it or not, Mr. Sramek was now her neighbor. Ms. Mahoney had refused a number of affords for her land, and Flannery’s lawsuit — an antitrust case in federal court docket — 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 whats up.

“You is likely to 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. Folks accused him of pushing small farms out of enterprise. They mentioned Flannery’s cash was turning households towards 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 mentioned, “Hello, Christine!” as if they’d met a number of occasions earlier than and he wasn’t presently suing her.

“I’d prefer to welcome you as our neighbor, but it surely’s form of tough,” Ms. Mahoney mentioned.

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 undertaking is sure to be controversial. To beat resistance, the initiative features a lengthy record 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 previous farming city from the brand new tech metropolis. Renderings that his firm launched this month painting a medium-density group that’s roughly the alternative of a subdivision, with a grid of rowhouses that lie a brief stroll from retailers and have easy accessibility to bike lanes and bus stops. He mentioned the primary part of constructing may accommodate round 50,000 individuals.

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 record of ifs that explains why massive initiatives are often measured in a long time, not the few years that Mr. Sramek appears to think about.

It’s an important step, nevertheless. Past amending the ordinance, a win would strain county officers to work with Mr. Sramek, so opponents are already lining up. A bunch known as Solano Together, a mixture of agricultural and environmental organizations like Greenbelt Alliance, not too long ago created an internet site that characterizes the undertaking 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 greatest state and financial system largely by buying and selling open and agricultural land for inhabitants and improvement.

That shifted within the Sixties and Seventies, when a backlash towards 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 current 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 undertaking to revive Californians’ urge for food for progress. If the state is severe about tackling its dire inexpensive housing drawback, he argued, it doesn’t simply should construct extra housing in locations like San Francisco and its suburbs — it additionally has to increase the city footprint with new cities.

As a matter of coverage, that is onerous 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 goal, all whereas pursuing farmers with aggressive ways and lawsuits — they discover him reliable.

Christine and Dan Mahoney’s home seems onto a barn that claims 1877, the 12 months Ms. Mahoney’s great-grandfather constructed it.

Once I met the couple for an interview at their home final 12 months, Ms. Mahoney had embellished the eating desk with black-and-white photos of kin in button clothes 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. Once I requested how she discerned the strains of possession in an expanse of yellow grassland, she mentioned: “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 probably the most consequential individuals are those that construct massive issues and a fortune alongside the best way.

Driving close to the Mahoneys’ ranch not too long ago, via the identical yellow hills, he posited that the combination of wealth and innovation that has exploded within the Bay Space has occurred solely a handful of occasions in historical past. (Florence, Paris, London, New York, Chicago and “perhaps L.A.” had been some others.) We had been 60 miles from San Francisco in a spot the place the tallest constructions are wind generators, however his message was that the area might be an financial solar, and that bringing extra individuals within the orbit was worthy of the trade-offs.

An immigrant and striver who at 22 was a co-author of a ebook known as “Racing In direction of Excellence,” Mr. Sramek bought 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 schooling firm known 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 12 months.

His failures apart, Mr. Sramek was smitten with the Bay Space’s tradition of artistic 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 incapacity to repair it, had turn out to be one thing of a facet hustle for a lot of Bay Space chief executives. And after Memo, Mr. Sramek began on the lookout for a giant disruptive concept 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 actual world,’” he mentioned. “And I used to be sitting there engaged on this.”

Mr. Sramek likes to fish. The way in which 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 kind of journeys, driving previous pastures and grazing sheep, sparked an concept.

“What for those who may begin from scratch?” he mentioned.

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

The Mahoneys speak about this the identical method they speak about 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 previous improvement maps dreaming of a start-up metropolis. Traders had been initially reluctant, he mentioned, so he borrowed $1 million from mates and banks to place a deposit on a handful of properties, then employed consultants and land-use legal professionals to evaluate what it could 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 ebook 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 be aware to potential traders I obtained, Mr. Moritz wrote that if “completed proper” the undertaking 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 mentioned: Mr. Moritz estimated that traders may make 10 occasions their cash even when they simply bought 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 nearly nothing about its shareholders or intentions. Simply that it needed numerous land, didn’t care in regards to the worth and was prepared to strong-arm homeowners 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, individuals like Ian Anderson discovered themselves within the uncomfortable place of making an attempt to rebuff its affords for parcels they owned — whereas on the identical time farming land they rented from Flannery.

Mr. Anderson realized how susceptible he was after a neighborhood newspaper quoted him saying that the corporate had begun insisting on short-term leases and that this made it more and more tough to farm. Later, Flannery’s lawyer despatched him a letter informing him that it was terminating a number of leases overlaying hundreds 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 simply be a punching bag and lease property to them.”

Consultant John Garamendi, a Democrat from the realm, characterised strikes like this as “mobster techniques.” The larger concern was that Flannery’s holdings had grown into an enormous mass that butted towards Travis Air Power 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 making an attempt to get info and calling their legislators,” mentioned Consultant Mike Thompson, one other Democrat from the realm.

The corporate remained silent.

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

“We paid method over market worth, and created lots of of millionaires within the course of,” he mentioned. “We’re glad that we’ve got been capable of 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 mentioned the corporate had now raised “greater than $900 million” however wouldn’t be extra particular.)

Massive traders begot larger traders, and the record expanded to a roster of Silicon Valley heavyweights together with Mr. Hoffman and Ms. Powell Jobs.

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

The Mahoneys offered Flannery a couple of hundred acres early on. (Their land is owned by a number of completely different entities and onerous to tally total, however within the Sixties Ms. Mahoney’s father instructed a newspaper that he had 16,000 acres within the space.) However as Flannery wolfed extra of the land round them, Ms. Mahoney mentioned, she realized that one thing massive was occurring and that their whole farming enterprise might be in danger. So the household stopped promoting to Flannery. The corporate persevered with extra affords, nevertheless, enhancing phrases and rising 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 all largest sheep farmers in California. Ms. Mahoney’s father was in his 90s (he died final 12 months) and he or she was passing management to her son Ryan, who mentioned his want was to remain there till he was in his 90s, too.

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

And after years of backwards and forwards, 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 relations who needed out, then changing into what amounted to unwelcome companions with those who remained. Two of those preparations led to lawsuits between Flannery and the opposite homeowners. Each settled, however one in all them netted a trove of emails and textual content messages amongst a number of neighbors together with the Mahoneys.

In Might, Flannery used these messages to file an antitrust suit towards the Mahoneys and several other holdouts. The swimsuit contended that the farmers had been colluding to lift costs, describing them as “rich landowners who noticed a chance to conspire, collude, worth 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 need to promote however at even larger costs than Flannery was providing.

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

Even after being sued, the Mahoneys nonetheless had no concept who Flannery really 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 government of California Ceaselessly, the corporate’s new identify.

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

In a state the place it might take years to get a duplex accredited, Mr. Sramek appears to have calculated that his undertaking is just too massive to fail. Builders, planners and legal professionals I spoke to all anticipated the undertaking to both by no means occur or take not less than 20 years. Whether or not out of bluster, delusion or confidence, Mr. Sramek, who not too long ago purchased a home in close by Fairfield, mentioned he had promised his spouse that their toddler daughter would begin faculty within the improvement he needed to construct.

He didn’t discover some secret hack that may make California a neater place to construct. Somewhat, he believes the state’s perspective towards progress is altering. Californians, he thinks, have grown pissed off — with punishing housing prices, with homelessness, with the state’s incapacity 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 perhaps 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 mentioned. “We will’t say we’re about financial alternative and working-class Californians are leaving the state yearly.”

Final 12 months’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 might be chops in lower than a 12 months, 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 attractive.

“Everyone has their worth, proper?” she mentioned. “I’ve heard that so many occasions. ‘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 publish 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 offered to the press, and particulars about design had been mentioned.

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

The evening earlier than the assembly, the Mahoneys offered it. They bought about $23 million.

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