Wealthy Developer Abandons Plans for Utopian Community in Vermont

Jun 29, 2018

Credit Alliance for Vermont Communities, Upper Valley Land Trust

A wealthy developer from Utah has abandoned his plan to establish a community in the White River Valley of Vermont near the birthplace of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith.

David Hall announced this week that he’s selling 1,500 acres of land he’s fought local activists to accumulate since 2015.

The Valley News has followed this story closely for the past few years. Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with John Gregg, news editor for the paper, about Hall's change of mind.

(Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)

So John, first let's catch our listeners up on the basics of this. It's a story that's been unfolding for a long time now, but many people may not know much about David Hall. Can you tell us who he is?

He's an engineer and lives in the Provo area. His father patented something having to do with drilling technology, and then David Hall himself ran the company and they sold it recently. So he has apparently tens of millions of dollars at his disposal. And he has envisioned a concept called NewVistas, which he says is based in part on something called the plant of Zion, which was a sketch done by Joseph Smith of a community back in the 19th century. And he has taken that and wanted to do something with that near the Joseph Smith birthplace in the White River Valley in Vermont.

And his plans for this NewVistas development involve buying up the land for Vermont towns that were near the birthplace of Joseph Smith. That includes the town of Royalton, Sharon, Stafford and Tunbridge, I think. What did he want to accomplish by establishing this community in these towns?

Right – Royalton, Tunbridge, Strafford and Sharon – and he was trying to get 5,000 acres and bring ultimately up to 20,000 people in what he said would be a sustainable, sort of eco-friendly, community that would keep a lot of open land, but also bring new technology and new jobs. Although he also was always clear that this would take decades to accomplish beyond his lifetime. He's in his early 70s. It should be noted, these are four towns about 20 minutes west of White River Junction. They're old farm towns and 20,000 people would be probably double the existing population in those four towns combined.

Now he faced a ton of opposition, I know, one example being the Alliance for Vermont Communities, which was a group that formed specifically to fight against Hall. Why were so many people against it?

Well in part because it was not very Vermont-like. It was large in scale. He envisioned using greenhouses stacked on each other to build the agriculture, which is different. This is an area actually that has a lot of dairy farming and interest in organic farming, people using the soil. And a lot of people have moved to Vermont because they like the old traditions, the old houses, the way it is. And so this is a totally new concept. Some people said look, Vermont's economy isn't particularly vibrant. What he's proposing is something people at least ought to consider. But it was buying a lot of land. It would have changed the quality of life for a lot of people who live there, or so they thought.

So how far did this opposition go?

It went to the statehouse. First what happened [is] this Alliance for Vermont Communities formed. They got town meeting votes in 2017 in the four towns that all came out against it. And then the local state representatives brought a resolution to the Vermont House this spring, which passed coming out against the project. It had no teeth to it, but it was symbolic. And then most significantly, what happened this week is the National Trust for Historic Preservation – they announced their list of 10 endangered places. And in that they added an addendum which put these four towns on their so-called watch list, saying that they were sort of threatened by this proposal. David Hall saw that. He actually gave credit to his opponents that they had sort of brought this to a national level and said, boy that's the breaking point. I'm just not going to be able to do this in Vermont and said I'm going to try and sell these properties instead. And he reached out to the land trusts and preservation groups and said perhaps you'd like to try and buy these properties in block.

I was going to ask you what's next. Does he have some specific ideas [of] how he would like to sell this?

He would like to sell them in one chunk. I should be clear that these properties are not contiguous by any means. He has started just to assemble. You know, he had 1,500 acres roughly out of the 5,000 that he needed. But they're sort of spread out within that area in the four towns. So you know he's hoping that a preservation group or some of the major land trusts might try and preserve them. I suspect what may happen is that they might buy what are perceived as sort of the most valuable to conserve or try to do that.

And I think the Valley News, your paper, reported that Hall himself had said you know if you have a dream don't come to Vermont.

He sent an e-mail to me yesterday morning that said Vermont is one tough place to have ideas and get anything new going. Don't try any dreaming in Vermont. You know that certainly was his experience. There's still lots of people who do like to move up here. So we'll see you know if he's right.