Even as a mysterious cabal of tech tycoons and venture capitalists began buying more than $800 million worth of farmland to build a utopian city in Solano County, the local board of supervisors abruptly voted to dissolve a longstanding agriculture advisory committee—just when it was most needed.
At the May 2 meeting, Solano County Board chairman John Vasquez said that the committee had long since completed its original mission, which he described as advising the board on revising the General Plan—which included new zoning for this largely agricultural county in Northern California.
The original plan was passed as a ballot measure in 1984 in response to an earlier effort by another developer to build a new city. The measure restricted development to within the limits of the county’s seven existing cities for at least 10 years. It was renewed in 1994 and then incorporated into the current county plan, which is not due for revision until 2028.
“[The advisory committee] served their purpose, they accomplished the things that needed to be done, and, and now they’re just meeting to be meeting,” Vasquez told The Daily Beast on Tuesday.
Jeannie McCormack, a third generation farmer in the county’s Montezuma Hills, offered the board a very different view during the public comment section of this May meeting where the board considered the results of an annual evaluation of its various committees. She contended that the agricultural advisory committee could perform a vital function at a critical moment in the county’s history.
“The agricultural community in Solano County is going through a very devastating time now,” McCormack told the board. “There is a very well-heeled buyer who is coming out and buying up all the farmland for prices that do not relate in any way to the real market. And agriculture will be gone in the Montezuma Hills.”
“I hope not, but it could be before I die. And I just cannot bear that.”
She was speaking as someone for whom family legacy and a love of those hills dwarf even a mountain of cash. She saw the advisory committee as a repository of another kind of wealth.
“We need to marshal our agricultural human resources in this terrible situation,” she continued.. “And that’s what the Agricultural Advisory Committee has been.”
She said she and her husband had both served on it.
“It’s just a fantastic way of sharing information among farmers who are involved in very different enterprises,” she went on. “I hope that you will keep our committee. We need it, we need it desperately right now.”
Board member Wanda Willis spoke in favor of keeping the board. She is more city than country and had not been sure what to do when she received a call regarding a dispute between two farmers over “bumblebee poop.” She had sought the advice of the agricultural committee, but was informed that it had been instructed not to meet. She did not name who exactly had given that order, but specified that it was shortly before the committee was notified that it was being dissolved pending a vote by the board.
She called it “a disservice to the county” and “a very bad message to the agricultural community.”
“This is their opportunity to have a voice, to share some advice with us,” she continued. “I believe instead of dissolving this, it should be restructured.”
She added that the board should have sought the advice of the advisory committee as the mysterious Flannery Associates began a five-year spending spree, buying thousands of acres, often at inflated prices.
“[The farmers on the committee] should have been involved and had an opportunity to come advise our board when Flannery was buying up all the land,” she said. “They weren’t given the opportunity to share that information when it first started happening with them. We see how they’ve been pretty much bullied into giving up their land.”
Willis proposed an alternative to dismantling the advisory committee.
“I [would] like to request that it be restructured and that we work with them to build the new structure, making sure the board is actually sending them the information so that we can get their advice on issues that do come up that we need their input on,” she said.
Vasquez was not persuaded. He told his fellow board members that the committee “was not a group set up to receive updates.”
“It was a group to provide information on topics of interest to the board,” he said. “We had chosen there is not much for them to do because we had not delegated that to them.”
He appeared to think that all made sense.
“I don’t see the usefulness of it anymore,” he concluded.
The board then proceeded to vote 3-2 to dissolve the committee.
One matter the now-defunct advisory committee could have advised the board about was a federal antitrust suit that Flannery Associates filed 16 days later against a group of longtime farmers, seeking $510 million in damages for alleged price fixing.
The threat of legal action spread fear though much of Solano’s agricultural community. Some farmers, such as 68-year-old Wesley Stewart, were unaffected, simply telling Flannery Associates they were not interested in selling when the company approached them two years ago.
“And that’s it,” he told The Daily Beast on Tuesday.
By way of explaining his no sale position, he said, ”We’ve been there since the 1860s.”
But numerous farmers who were not named in the suit were afraid even to discuss the matter for fear of legal repercussions
And to make it worse, two farmers told The Daily Beast on background, Flannery Associates has sought to capitalize on divisions within families over whether to take the money or not.
“[Flannery Associates] were trying to turn family members against each other. If one set of cousins wanted to sell, and the other, who was doing the actual farming, did not want to sell,” the company would pit the two against each other, a farmer who asked not to be named said. “That part of it was really awful.”
Such tactics are not surprising when you consider that the scheme was reportedly thought up by Jan Sramek, who has been described by The Daily Beast as a former Wall Street wunderkind who finds guidance in a quote from Ayn Rand: “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.”
Other Flannery investors identified by The New York Times are billionaire greedsters who seem ever-ready to ignore principles for principal. But there are also seemingly decent souls such as Laurene Powell Jobs. You have to wonder how she allows herself to be party to a scheme whose lasting effects are prophesied by the farmer who spoke to The Daily Beast.
“The nastiness that they have left behind will not disappear when this thing is over,” the farmer said. “Because those cousins will remember how their cousins stabbed them in the back.”
The farmer added, “And that’s a really heartbreaking thing.”
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