By Erin Mansfield, VTDigger
Four towns in the Upper Valley of Vermont are opposing a Utah man’s plan to build a giant development that could eventually hold 1 million people right in their backyards. Residents voted Tuesday, March 8, by Australian ballot in Royalton (123 to 16), Sharon (100 to 16) and Tunbridge (165 to 4) to oppose the proposed NewVistas project. Strafford passed a resolution opposing the development in a voice vote at its annual town meeting.
“We want to show our legislators and our governor — in a physical sense and in a number sense — how people in the area feel about this,” said Michael Sacca, the president of the Alliance for Vermont Communities, which lobbied to have each town vote on the NewVistas item.
Sacca said the alliance also wants the vote to show NewVistas how the communities feel about the planned development, and for residents to show their neighbors how they feel.
“The scale of this proposal is way out of whack with what the town plans and the regional plans say they want their vision to be for the towns in the area,” Sacca said. “This is a rural area, and putting what is the equivalent of the second- or third-largest city in a rural area is ill-conceived.”
The NewVistas project has been controversial since David R. Hall proposed it in the spring of 2016. Hall is seeking to build the first community of 20,00 people on 5,000 acres, before expanding it into 50 similar adjacent communities holding a total of 1 million people. Hall, a Mormon, envisions a governance structure and design that reflects Mormon principles. He wants to run the community more like a corporation than a municipality. He would center the first community on a small part of Sharon, where Mormon church founder Joseph Smith was born. So far, Hall has bought up 1,500 acres in Sharon, Royalton, Tunbridge and Strafford. Hall would require people who want to live in the community to sell all their assets and use that money to invest in the corporation. Hall has promised an annual return of 12 percent. Over time, Hall says, he wants to build 19 more of these larger communities of 1 million people, and bring a total of 20 million people to Vermont.
Sacca said Hall has bought so much land since October 2015 that he is “destabilizing real estate markets” and entire neighborhoods. “In most cases, the investment of land and a house is the greatest thing that people own, and here it is being threatened because of his development,” Sacca said.
Kevin Ellis, a lobbyist from Ellis Mills Public Affairs representing Hall, said Wednesday, March 8, that Hall’s plans would not change in light of the votes from the four towns because Hall’s vision is long term.
“I’m sort of challenging the premise of the whole thing,” Ellis said. “It’s not about today or tomorrow. This is an idea that he has had. … This is not ready for primetime. There has to be changes, and this is a 50- to 80-year outlook.”
Hall held the same view in a statement emailed after the votes Tuesday.
“All we are doing in Vermont right now is land consolidation and conservation in an effort to reduce the current trend in Vermont of subdivision of large parcels into smaller parcels,” Hall said.
“We know and have always known that most current owners in Vermont will be opposed to any development and especially one as large as NewVistas,” Hall said. “This is true regardless of location … not unique to Vermont.”
Hall said NewVistas continues to buy land based on whether the timing is right. “Long term, we expect (to) continue to be successful in our objective to consolidate and preserve the land in the communities where we are purchasing,” he said. “So far we are having greater success in purchasing land than we planned on.”
At the same time, Ellis said: “There has not been a lot of land purchasing in the last three to six months, in my view. He’s a frugal guy, so he wants to stick to budgets and plans.”
Rebecca Milaschewski, of Sharon, said the property she owns with her husband is already sandwiched between two parcels Hall purchased behind her house and across the street.
“A few more of my neighbors on the other two sides were for sale,” she said. “I don’t know if they were sold. I don’t know who they would have been sold to. I don’t know if I’ve been surrounded at this point.”
Milaschewski, 27, said she and her husband plan to stay in their home forever, so they will still be there in 50 years when the NewVistas project might be up and running. But she said she worries that if she ever needed to sell the home, she would have no other choice than to sell it to Hall.
“I think it really is having an effect on this area with people looking to purchase homes in this area, she said. “They’re worried about it, because nobody wants to be the last holdout.”
Jane Huppee, 58, and her husband own a home with 43 acres of land in Tunbridge. But she said Hall has already bought three parcels that border their home on three different sides.
“I’m practically surrounded,” Huppee said.
She said the ownership change means she can no longer use one piece of land where she has gone on long hikes, and her husband has gone hunting, for the 22 years they have owned their home.
“It’s very stressful because you don’t know what (will happen) in the future,” she said. “It doesn’t help with neighborhood relationships and having a vibrant neighborhood. It’s mostly just very stressful.”
Huppee said she is concerned about how Hall’s plans will affect the local water supply. “We lost water this fall for the first time in 22 years, and we have a 545-foot drilled well,” Huppee said.
“So, how’s he going to supply water to 20,000 people, and what’s that going to do to neighboring wells?” she asked. Sacca, from the Alliance for Vermont Communities, said his group also has a long-term vision to plan for the community.
“We’re seeing this NewVistas threat as just a blip on our screen,” he said.
A NewVistas rendering of Joseph Smith’s “Plat of Zion” land use plan.