Residents of Rio Vista, an agricultural town of 10,000 near the edge of Solano County, have been captivated for most of the last six years by one question: Who was buying up all the farmland?

It appeared to be a little-known company called Flannery Associates, which by last year had become the largest landowner in the county. Residents speculated on its purpose: Some thought it could be a cover for foreign spies; others believed it was a shell company acquiring property for a new Disneyland.

But even after investigations by the county and federal agencies, nobody could learn anything about the company’s owners or true intentions.

The veil lifted in August, when my colleague Erin Griffith and I revealed that the purchases were being directed by a former Goldman Sachs trader named Jan Sramek, who wanted to build a city of up to 400,000 people on what is now rolling yellow farmland, where families have raised sheep and cattle for generations.

Sramek is backed by a who’s who of Silicon Valley. His investors include billionaires like Michael Moritz, the venture capitalist from Sequoia Capital; Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn; and Laurene Powell Jobs, founder of the Emerson Collective and the widow of the Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

Now comes the campaign.

In a recent article, I delved into Sramek, the history of Flannery Associates and where the effort may go from here. Last week, the company, now called California Forever, began collecting signatures for a ballot initiative that would essentially ask Solano County voters for permission to build the city.

It will be an uphill battle. The initiative, if it qualifies for the ballot, would ask voters to amend a popular, longstanding county ordinance that aims to protect farms by steering development to cities.

Sramek came to California from the Czech Republic to make his fortune in start-up companies. In an interview, I found him to be well-studied in housing policy. His basic message was that if the state was serious about tackling its housing problems, it will have to build whole new communities. Adding density to existing neighborhoods through “infill” development — the focus of state legislators over the past decade — is also important, but will not be enough, he said.

“We can’t say that we are about economic opportunity, and then working-class Californians are leaving the state every year,” Sramek told me.

His policy message is hard to disagree with. But because he operated in secret for years, and in several cases sued farmers who refused to sell to his company, many voters find him untrustworthy. That has made California Forever’s ballot-initiative campaign something of an apology tour.

You can read my full article here.

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