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California needs to step up after shadowy land deals near Travis Air Force Base

This story appeared on Calmatters

A C-5M Super Galaxy takes-off from Travis Air Force Base in Solano County on April 28, 2021. Photo by Cameron Otte, U.S. Air Force via AP Photo

In summary

The federal government is investigating major land acquisitions near Travis Air Force Base to determine whether the owner Flannery Associates poses a security risk. California can also intervene to protect the significant water, agriculture and environmental interests at stake.

Guest Commentary written by

Christopher Cabaldon

Christopher Cabaldon

Christopher Cabaldon is the former mayor of West Sacramento and a past member of Delta Protection Commission and Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. He is currently running for the District 3 seat in the state Senate.

When it comes to our state’s agricultural preservation and our nation’s security, knowing who owns and controls land is crucial.

In just five short years, a mysterious corporation called Flannery Associates, based out of Delaware – where corporations don’t have to disclose their owners or officers – has spent nearly $1 billion acquiring 52,000 acres in Solano County, becoming the largest landowner in the county. This includes important agricultural land, open spaces and, most concerningly, land encircling Travis Air Force Base, the largest hub for our Air Mobility Command. 

Yet, despite the scale, strategic location and potential risk of these acquisitions, we know surprisingly little about Flannery Associates. Who are they? Do they represent foreign interests? What are their intentions for this land? 

We have some troubling clues. As a state water quality regulator, I helped put in place stringent monitoring and enforcement standards for the controversial application of biosolids – treated human waste – on farmland in Solano (produce grown on biosolids land can’t be sold as organic). Flannery now owns the site. It bought sites previously used for animal testing and military purposes with toxic red flags.

With Flannery shrouded in secrecy and its owners shielded from liability, who will protect the groundwater, neighboring farms and towns, and the environment?

Stakeholders in the Delta are always suspicious of Owens Valley-style secret land grabs that gobble up precious water rights and threaten agriculture, habitat and drinking water. Flannery won’t be able to overrun the many Delta parcels it bought with sprawling development. But it is securing more and more water rights with these purchases. And it has acquired the entire left bank of the slough connecting 500,000 residents in Napa and Solano counties to their primary water supply, which was already one of the most vulnerable water quality segments of the State Water Project.

It isn’t just water security, either. Flannery now owns key elements of the regional energy grid, too.

Acquiring and assembling multiple parcels of land is not, on its own, problematic. It’s essential to economic development. What’s different here is the risk, magnified by the secrecy.

County officials have been working for years to unveil these investors. At the federal level, Rep. Mike Thompson and Rep. John Garamendi asked the Committee of Foreign Investment in the U.S. to investigate, and Thompson introduced bipartisan legislation to strengthen land protections around national security sites, critical infrastructure and farmland.

California can step up, too. The State Water Resources Control Board could be directed to look more closely at water rights acquired by foreign limited liability corporations. The state could limit the issuance of permits for emergent-risk activities to foreign corporations in instances where it is impossible to determine who is responsible for providing compensation, repair or remediation where appropriate.

As the state reviews carbon sequestration projects, it should pay special attention to this type of landowner. Flannery is considering a venture with a multinational industrial gas company, for example.

The state could also narrow foreign LLC eligibility for Williamson Act agricultural land tax incentives. 

Flannery must come clean. You cannot become the largest landowner in a county and quietly buy up lands so closely tied to our military, food, water and energy security and not expect calls for basic transparency.

Instead, the corporation has sued the families who’ve owned the land for generations and ducked basic questions from the public and local agencies. The state has the tools to get answers.

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