In 2017, Michael Moritz, the billionaire venture capitalist, sent a note to a potential investor about what he described as an unusual opportunity: a chance to invest in the creation of a new California city.
The site was in a corner of the San Francisco Bay Area where land was cheap. Mr. Moritz and others had dreams of transforming tens of thousands of acres into a bustling metropolis that, according to the pitch, could generate thousands of jobs and be as walkable as Paris or the West Village in New York.
He painted a kind of urban blank slate where everything from design to construction methods and new forms of governance could be rethought. And it would all be a short distance from San Francisco and Silicon Valley. “Let me know if this tickles your fancy,” he said in the note, a copy of which was reviewed by The New York Times.
Since then, a company called Flannery Associates began buying large plots of land in a largely agricultural region 60 miles northeast of San Francisco. The company, which has little information public about its operations, has committed more than $800 million securing thousands of acres of farmland, court documents show. One parcel after another, Flannery made offers to every landowner for miles, paying several times the market rate, whether the land had been listed for sale or not.
The purchases by a company that no one in the area had heard of and whose business was a mystery have become the subject of heavy speculation and developing news stories, rattling landowners, local supervisors, the nearby Air Force base and members of Congress. Was Disney buying it for a new theme park? Could the purchases be linked to China? A deep water port?
Flannery is the brainchild of Jan Sramek, 36, a former Goldman Sachs trader who has quietly courted some of the tech industry’s biggest names as investors, according to the email and people familiar with the matter. The company’s ambitions expand on the 2017 pitch: Take an arid patch of brown hills cut by a two-lane highway between suburbs and rural land, and convert into it into a community with tens of thousands of residents, clean energy, public transportation and dense urban life.
The company’s investors, whose identities have not been previously reported, comprise a who’s who of Silicon Valley, according to three people who were not authorized to speak publicly about the plans. They include Mr. Moritz; Reid Hoffman, the LinkedIn co-founder, venture capitalist and Democratic donor; Marc Andreessen and Chris Dixon, investors at the Andreessen Horowitz venture capital firm; Patrick and John Collison, the sibling co-founders of the payments company Stripe; Laurene Powell Jobs; and Nat Friedman and Daniel Gross, entrepreneurs-turned-investors. Andreessen Horowitz is also a backer. It was unclear how much each had invested.
Brian Brokaw, a representative for the investor group, said in a statement that the group was made up of “Californians who believe that Solano County’s and California’s best days are ahead.” He said the group planned to start working with Solano County residents and elected officials, as well as with Travis Air Force Base, next week.
In California, housing has long been an intractable problem, and Silicon Valley’s moguls have long been frustrated with the Bay Area’s real estate shortage, and the difficulty of building in California generally, as their work forces have exploded. Companies like Google have clashed with cities like Palo Alto and Mountain View over expanding their headquarters, while their executives have funded pro-development politicians and the “Yes in my backyard” activists who have pushed for looser development and zoning laws in hopes of making it easier to build faster and taller.
The practical need for more space has at times morphed into lofty visions of building entire cities from scratch. Several years ago, Y Combinator, the start-up incubator, announced an initiative with dreams of turning empty land into a new economy and society. Years before that, Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder and billionaire Facebook investor, invested in the Seasteading Institute, an attempt to build a new society on lily pad-like structures in the law-and-tax free open ocean.
But while these ideas have garnered lots of attention and curiosity — lauded in some corners for vision and derided in others for hubris — they have been little more than talk.
As Flannery began seeking property, it bought so much land, so fast, that it spooked locals who had no idea who the buyer was or the plans they had in mind. Catherine Moy, the mayor of Fairfield, Calif., started posting about the project on Facebook several years ago after she got a call from a farmer about some mystery buyer making offers throughout the county. In an interview, Ms. Moy said she went to the county assessor’s office and found that Flannery had purchased tens of thousands of acres.
John Garamendi, Democrat of California, who along with Mike Thompson, a Democrat, represents the surrounding region in Congress, said that he has been trying to figure out the company’s identity for four years.
“I couldn’t find out anything,” he said.
On Friday, he said that had suddenly changed. This week representatives for Flannery reached out to him and other elected officials requesting meetings about their plans. That meeting is now being scheduled, he said.
“This is their first effort, ever, to talk to any of the local representatives, myself included,” he said.
The land that Flannery has been purchasing is not zoned for residential use, and even in his 2017 pitch, Mr. Moritz acknowledged that rezoning could “clearly be challenging” — a nod to California’s notoriously difficult and litigious development process.