Elon Musk Is Planning a Texas Utopia — His Own Town

  • The entrepreneur is laying plans for a new community outside Austin next to Boring and SpaceX facilities, dubbed Snailbrook

The Wall Street Journal
Published10 Mar 2023, 08:03 PM IST

AUSTIN, Texas: Elon Musk is planning to build his own town on part of thousands of acres of newly purchased pasture and farmland outside the Texas capital, according to deeds and other land records and people familiar with the project.

In meetings with landowners and real-estate agents, Mr. Musk and employees of his companies have described his vision as a sort of Texas utopia along the Colorado River, where his employees could live and work.

Executives at the Boring Co., Mr. Musk's tunnel operation, have discussed and researched incorporating the town in Bastrop County, about 35 miles from Austin, which would allow Mr. Musk to set some regulations in his own municipality and expedite his plans, according to people familiar with Mr. Musk's projects.

They say Mr. Musk and his top executives want his Austin-area employees, including workers at Boring, electric-car maker Tesla Inc. and space and exploration company SpaceX, to be able to live in new homes with below-market rents.

The planned town is adjacent to Boring and SpaceX facilities now under construction. The site already includes a group of modular homes, a pool, an outdoor sports area and a gym, according to Facebook photos and people familiar with the town. Signs hanging from poles read "welcome, snailbrook, tx, est. 2021."

Snailbrook is a reference to Boring's mascot. When Mr. Musk started the tunneling venture, he challenged employees to build boring machines that move “faster than a snail.”

Some Boring employees, including Steve Davis, the company's president and a top lieutenant to Mr. Musk, have at times described even bigger plans, including creating an entire city, according to some of those people and text messages viewed by The Wall Street Journal.

During an all-hands meeting of Boring employees last year, Mr. Davis said they would have to hold an election for mayor, according to text messages and people familiar with the meeting.

Mr. Musk, his former girlfriend, who is the singer Grimes, Kanye West and Mr. West's architectural designer discussed several times last year what a Musk town might look like, according to people familiar with the discussions. Those talks included broad ideas and some visual mock-ups, according to one of the people, but haven't resulted in concrete plans.

Representatives for Mr. West, who goes by Ye, and Grimes, whose real name is Claire Boucher, couldn't be reached for comment.

Under Texas law, a town needs at least 201 residents before it can apply to incorporate, then approval from a county judge. Bastrop County hasn't received an application from Mr. Musk or any of his entities, a spokeswoman said.

Chap Ambrose, a computer programmer who lives on a hilltop overlooking the new Boring and SpaceX facilities, said he believes “they want it to be secret. They want to do things before anyone knows really what's happening.”

Mr. Ambrose has been seeking information from Boring and the county about the company's research and testing of its tunneling machines and how that might affect groundwater and wells in the area.

He has sent drones over the area seeking clues to other structures Boring and SpaceX are building and what they plan to produce in their factories. Drone footage and YouTube videos he posted show the construction of tunnels between the Boring and SpaceX parcels that run beneath a public road.


Messrs. Musk and Davis didn't respond to requests for comment. A lawyer for Mr. Musk, Alex Spiro, and a top adviser who heads his family office, Jared Birchall, also didn't respond to requests for comment.

Over the past three years, entities tied to Mr. Musk's companies or executives have purchased at least 3,500 acres in the Austin area, collectively about four times the size of New York's Central Park, according to county deeds and other land records. The Journal also obtained city and county emails through public-records requests, reviewed internal company communications and state licensing records, and interviewed land owners and city and county officials.

Some local real-estate and land officials said they have been told by people close to Mr. Musk that the billionaire owns even more land in the area — as much as 6,000 acres.

When Mr. Musk left his longtime home of California more than two years ago, he said he had lost patience with rules and regulations in that state, where Tesla and Boring were then headquartered before moving to Texas. California is the land of “overregulation, overlitigation, overtaxation,” he said in December 2021.

Texas has fewer zoning laws and environmental and labor requirements, and has vast swaths of loosely regulated land. Unlike California, it has no corporate income tax or income or capital-gains taxes on individuals.

Last month, Tesla said it was continuing to expand in California, too, and named an office in Palo Alto as its engineering headquarters. Tesla's corporate headquarters remains in Texas.

The Texas land purchases have taken place through at least four limited liability companies. Those companies are tied to Mr. Musk's businesses or their officers in county deed and land records and state business filings that list their names.

The plans include a project to build a private residential compound for Mr. Musk that potentially would be some distance from the planned town, according to people familiar with the plans.

Mr. Musk has been a chief driver of the plans, and the land purchases all have to be approved by him, said people familiar with the operation.

In many of the purchases tracked by the Journal, sellers have been required to sign nondisclosure agreements, according to people who have signed them. Local economic-development officials said they were asked to sign such agreements when they were told Boring was coming to town.

During a spring 2020 visit to the condo of Steve Adler, then mayor of Austin, Mr. Musk sought assurances from him and an official in Travis County, where Austin is located, that government bureaucracy wouldn't stand in the way of his many projects, Mr. Adler said. "What he wanted from the city was speed," said Mr. Adler, a Democrat who left office when his second term ended this January.

Soon after, Mr. Musk began building the Tesla manufacturing facility known as Giga Texas, more than 10 million square feet on roughly 2,500 acres in Travis County, outside Austin, according to land records and Tesla's website.

In neighboring Bastrop County, about an hour southeast of Austin, SpaceX is building a 500,000-square-foot facility, and, across state road 1209, Boring is building a new warehouse.

Last June, Robert Pugh, then Bastrop County's director of engineering, complained in an email to Clara Beckett, the county commissioner in charge of planning, that staffers had been “regularly hounded” by employees and contractors of Boring and Starlink, a SpaceX unit. They want the county to “expedite and approve permit applications that are incomplete and not in compliance” with the county's regulations, Mr. Pugh wrote.

Mr. Pugh left his job that same month and didn't respond to requests for comment. Ms. Beckett didn't respond to requests for comment.

The planned town would sit in Bastrop County. An entity called Gapped Bass LLC, of which state records show Boring's Mr. Davis serving as president, now owns more than 200 acres there, all purchased within the past two years. SpaceX has purchased about 60 more acres. The land was previously owned by longtime ranchers and other Texas families.

As of last year, Boring employees could apply for a home with rents starting at about $800 a month for a two- or three-bedroom, according to an advertisement for employees viewed by the Journal and people familiar with the plans. If an employee leaves or is fired, he or she would have to vacate the house within 30 days, those people said.

The median rent in Bastrop, Texas, is about $2,200 a month, according to real-estate listing company Zillow Group Inc.

Executives have discussed opening the houses to all employees of Mr. Musk's companies.

Gapped Bass has filed paperwork with Bastrop County to build 110 more homes in the planned town, which it calls "Project Amazing."

Bastrop County officials approved street names such as Boring Boulevard, Waterjet Way, and Cutterhead Crossing, according to county meeting documents.

Boring plans to convert a home on the property into a Montessori school for as many as 15 students, according to correspondence between a Boring company official and a county government employee.

Adena Lewis, the county's director of tourism and economic development, said she isn't sure of Boring's time frame for the development, but the region sorely needs new housing. “They're very respectful of us,” she said. “But they're in a hurry.”

Ms. Lewis said the county's small size made it attractive to Mr. Musk's companies. "I think it's the ability to work with folks on a direct level, and not having tons of red tape," she said.

Mr. Musk has long envisioned building a town, and a couple of years ago helped his brother, Kimbal Musk, refine an idea to build an off-the-grid community, according to people familiar with the plans. It couldn't be determined where that idea stands. When the Journal reached out to a spokeswoman for Kimbal Musk, describing the project, including a purported name, she said he wasn't aware of the project as described and didn't respond to further requests for clarification.

Mr. Musk has been a proponent of affordable housing for employees. In 2018, during a public panel discussion with then-Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada, Mr. Musk talked about building housing for Tesla workers alongside the company's huge complex outside Reno.

In 2021, Mr. Musk tweeted about creating the city of Starbase, Texas, in Boca Chica Village, where SpaceX has operations along the Gulf of Mexico. It isn't clear whether the city has been incorporated. A spokeswoman for Cameron County, where Boca Chica Village is located, didn't respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Musk has explored building a private compound on some of the newly acquired land in Bastrop County, according to people familiar with his plans. For some of the past two years, he has stayed at a friend's mansion in Austin, the Journal has reported.

The status and location of the potential house couldn't be determined. The people familiar with the plan say the town is a separate project.

Some locals have sold land to Mr. Musk's companies. Others who own land in Bastrop and Travis counties said they have gotten few answers from Mr. Musk's companies about their plans, and have said they won't sell.

Some said they feel steamrolled by eager public officials who aren't asking enough questions. “They're just going as fast as they can,” said Mr. Ambrose, whose home overlooks the Boring site.

In 2013, when Mr. Ambrose bought his 10 acres of hilltop land, there were only about a dozen residences within a mile. Since the spring of 2021, Boring has erected several warehouses and dug at least two test tunnels, and SpaceX is constructing the largest building in the county.

“There's no transparency,” said David Barrow, who runs Eden East Farm on Bastrop's North Main Street, which supports his family's two restaurants and a farmstand.

Boring employees are among his regular customers, Mr. Barrow said, but he is worried the new projects could threaten the water quality of the Colorado River and the aquifers that supply the region's wells.

Recently, Boring applied to state environmental authorities to discharge up to 140,000 gallons of industrial wastewater a day into the river.

"I would like to know what is actually being sprayed, what they're actually building, and who is going to hold them accountable," Mr. Barrow said, referring to plans to disperse some wastewater onto Boring land.

Ms. Lewis, the director of tourism and economic development, said she had no concerns that the company's development would harm the river and surrounding farmland.

After being approached by some landowners, including Mr. Ambrose, Texas State Sen. Sarah Eckhardt requested a public environmental hearing set for this month.

"We're going to need to have more of a conversation and be able to verify the assertions that these companies are making with regard to the discharge permit into the Colorado River,"Ms. Eckhardt said.

Instead of trying to force one of the world's richest men out of town, Mr. Ambrose said, "we can make him be a good member of the community and be a good neighbor and follow the law. And that, to me, is worth the effort."

—Jim Oberman, Elisa Cho and Micah Maidenberg contributed to this article.

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First Published:10 Mar 2023, 08:03 PM IST
HomeCompaniesElon Musk Is Planning a Texas Utopia — His Own Town

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