A developer from Utah has abandoned his plans to build a futuristic utopia in the hills of central Vermont.
In 2015, David Hall began buying up land in Tunbridge, Royalton, Sharon and Strafford, with the goal of creating an “ecologically sustainable” community that would one day house as many as 20,000 residents.
The local opposition has been intense, however.
And when the four communities affected by the venture turned up this week on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s "watch status," as part of its 2018 list of most endangered historic places, Hall decided to pull the plug on the project.
“That was kind of like a last straw for me, about, gee whiz, I don’t want to be on a national watch,” Hall said in an interview Wednesday. “Those who are opposing my dream did a really good job, so I tip my hat to them. I'm tired of the drama."
The “watch status” designation was due in large measure to a campaign by a local organization, called the Alliance for Vermont Communities, that sprouted in 2016 to galvanize opposition to Hall’s plans.
Hall said he anticipated pushback over his proposal for what calls a “New Vistas” community.
“But I didn’t realize there would be such well-organized and powerful and good resistance,” he said.
Michael Sacca, president of the Alliance for Vermont Communities, is one of the people leading that resistance.
“Personally what I felt was that this was some sort of an injustice to the residents of this area,” Sacca said in an interview at his home in Tunbridge Wednesday.
Sacca said it’s the scale of Hall’s proposal that was so discomfiting.
Sacca said Hall’s concept is in many ways outlandish and unrealistic. But the fact that Hall’s a wealthy businessman who reportedly has more than $100 million to pour into New Vistas, Sacca said, compelled concerned citizens to take action.
“We know that money can influence decisions, particularly on the state level,” Sacca said. “So that’s when we, this group of thinkers and strategists got together and said, you know, we have to take this seriously.”
Hall’s vision for central Vermont is as grand as it is quixotic. And he said his ultimate aim is for nothing less than new model for human existence, where people live in densely-packed, energy efficient residential units, and grow their own food on community farms.
Hall, a Mormon, said he decided to site the New Vistas community in central Vermont because he developed an affinity for the region as a child when he’d visit the Joseph Smith Birthplace Memorial, in South Royalton, with his family.
The New Vistas concept is derived from a design and social order based on a 19th-century Mormon document called the "Plat of Zion."
“See, my belief is that the New Vistas approach is the best thing to do for the land and the area, and is the greenest,” Hall said.
Sacca isn’t at all convinced that New Vistas is the act of beneficence Hall has portrayed it as.
“I think he’s looked at this as a real estate development all along,” Sacca said. “This is a chunk of real estate to be developed and worked.”
The end of the New Vistas proposal for Vermont does not mark the end of the story for the affected communities.
Though Hall said a fully realized New Vistas community was still likely 100 years away, he’s purchased numerous parcels Tunbridge, Royalton, Sharon and Strafford.
Hall said he’s paid between $7 million and $8 million for about 1,800 acres; Sacca said the Alliance’s review of land records indicates he’s paid $6 million for 1,500 acres.
Whatever the real numbers are, the process of de-acquisition could have serious impacts on the surrounding communities.
Hall said his preference is to sell the land as a single parcel to conservation foundation. He’s already spoken with the Preservation Trust of Vermont.
“My inclination would be to give [the] advantage to some conservation group. But it’s also not very probable that a conservation group would be interested in the whole thing. But I’ll feel that out carefully,” Hall said.
Sacca said he has some preliminary ideas about how Hall could transfer the properties, especially if he’s so keen on seeing the land conserved.
“I guess maybe we could name a price,” Sacca said. “Maybe $1 would do it.”
In an interview, however, Hall didn’t seem inclined to a charitable giveaway.
“The market will determine where it goes,” Hall said.
Hall said his decision to sell off the land is an unfortunate end to his effort to save a place he said he cares deeply for. And he said the conservationists trying to protect central Vermont from his development are in fact perpetuating the kind of rural sprawl that he believes will destroy it.
“The sad part for me is I don’t think they realize the economic disaster and actually the ecological disaster that they’re on track," Hall said. “I just don’t think they realize where they’re going.”
Sacca said members of the Alliance actually have a good idea where they’re going. And he said it’s up to the local residents — not a developer from Utah — to decide what that destination is.