(Bloomberg) -- A group of Silicon Valley billionaires led by former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. trader Jan Sramek have quietly bought up over $800 million worth of Northern California farmland to create a new city from scratch. But their vision of a sustainable utopia is drawing persistent opposition from locals who are fighting to preserve a rural way of life.

At the first of several town halls meant to win over the community, Sramek laid out his vision of turning the land into a dense, walkable city that would create high-paying jobs and boost economic growth. But many residents at an event late Wednesday were outraged by his proposal, shouting him down as a “shill” and “smooth talker” and leveling allegations that his company, Flannery Associates LLC, engineered a secretive land grab.

The contentious meeting signaled the challenges ahead for Sramek, 36, as he navigates the politics of rural Solano County, an hour north of San Francisco. As part of an ambitious project known as California Forever, he’s led the acquisition of 53,000 acres used mostly for cattle grazing and farming. Backers include Silicon Valley luminaries such as former Sequoia Capital Chairman Mike Moritz, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen. 

“This might look like a crazy idea to some of the people in the room,” Sramek said at the town hall in Vallejo. “But so did most of the companies that they invested in.” 

Sramek made his pitch at the Vallejo Naval & Historic Museum, as residents sipped complimentary apple cider and eggnog. The California Forever project has announced five additional meetings for December in other locations. Sramek plans to seek voter approval for his city concept through a ballot measure in November 2024. 

Standing in front of a slide deck at the Vallejo meeting, he touted his “blue-collar” upbringing in the Czech Republic, a successful Wall Street career and the backing of big-name investors. He also dangled the potential for affordable housing in a state where pricey real estate and the high cost of living have prompted many residents to flee to states such as Nevada, Arizona and Texas.

“Everyone is shocked that schools are expensive and people’s kids are leaving the state and nobody can afford to live here,” Sramek said. “It’s really simple. There’s just not enough homes in California, and we’ve really screwed it up over the last 40 years.”

His effort already faces an uphill battle. A coalition of farmers, mayors, and environmentalists have all criticized the project for potential impacts to sensitive habitats and agricultural businesses, along with concerns about the security of nearby Travis Air Force Base. The Sierra Club, a leading environmentalist group, dubbed California Forever a “hostile takeover” this week. 

“They’re not trying to listen to the community. This is a sales pitch,” said Aiden Mayhood, a 22-year-old resident of nearby Rio Vista, before the town hall in Vallejo. 

Further roiling the waters, Flannery is suing a group of Solano landowners for allegedly colluding to inflate their property values. The Sramek-led company is seeking at least $510 million in damages. The landowners deny wrongdoing. 

‘Nothing Nefarious’

Sramek accused his critics of opposing new housing developments in the region regardless of who is behind the project. 

“The people who don’t like this project for ideological reasons have tried to weaponize the fact that this was bought in secret,” he said. “There is nothing nefarious about it.”

During the town hall, residents repeatedly interrupted Sramek and shouted out their lack of faith in Wall Street trader-turned-novice developer. One of the most contentious moments came when Marge Grow-Eppard, a member of the Miwok tribe, said Sramek had disregarded the region’s indigenous population and would “cement over” Native American burial grounds. 

“What about the Native American graves that you’re going to be excavating and building on without even consulting us, the natives of this land?” she said. “This is very disrespectful for us, and I’m sick of developers coming in and we don’t know nothing.”

Sramek said he was a relative newcomer to the US, with only a decade in the country. 

“I could not have done anything to your people,” he said. 

--With assistance from Dave Merrill.

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.