A Utah man’s vision of building a sustainable community of 15,000 to 20,000 people on thousands of acres in four Vermont towns is causing a stir among residents.
Late last year, while going through property transfers as she helped prepare the Sharon town report, Nicole Antal noticed a couple of significant land purchases by a foundation based in Provo, Utah.
She soon discovered other purchases in neighboring Tunbridge, Royalton and Strafford, all made since last fall. They totaled 900 acres.
Antal also started looking around for information about the foundation, which is called NewVistas.
“I just Googled their name and stumbled upon their website which described the whole philosophy and the project,” she says.
The project, which Antel described in an article first published on the Upper Valley news site Daily UV, envisions purchasing 5,000 acres of land in Vermont to build a community of 15,000 to 20,000 people.
When the article came out early last week, it sparked a lively debate.
“I haven’t been able to go in my community [without] people talking to me about this project. And usually they’re very negative comments,” Antal says.
Most unsettling for many is the idea of a community of 20,000 springing up among existing towns with much smaller populations.
The land purchases happened quietly, but David R. Hall, president of NewVistas Foundation, is happy to talk about his ideas.
His vision is to create a completely self-contained settlement that would produce no waste and generate enough energy and food to sustain itself. Community supported industry and businesses would provide jobs and commerce.
It would include health care facilities and schools and would be designed to eliminate the need for cars. Buildings would be constructed from locally available materials.
“Twenty thousand people in three square miles seems very radical,” he says. “How do you grow all the food you need, all the jobs you need, have a bustling economy, have social structures that don’t break down? How do you make that work?”
Those are questions the 69 year-old Hall says he has been grappling with for decades, and he has the financial wherewithal to try to solve them.
Hall’s father invented the synthetic diamond. Hall, who’s also an engineer, made his fortune developing drilling technology used in a variety of industries from geothermal to coal and oil.
“People I’m going to say I’m the biggest hypocrite in the world,” he says, speaking of the fossil fuel applications. “I’m the world’s expert in drilling technology. That’s where I made my money.”
Hall’s ideas are described in a 23-page document at the NewVistas Foundation website.
A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons, Hall refers often to a document written by church founder Joseph Smith in 1833, which describes an ideal community call the Plat of Zion.
He says the communities he envisions would not be religious, because history shows they don’t work — and he acknowledges that his ideas may seem out in left field to many people.
“You may not think that way now, but your children’s children will think that way and science and engineering are going to prove that your current approach is very bad for the earth and for people,” he says.
As a boy, Hall vacationed with his family in Vermont and visited the Joseph Smith birthplace in Sharon, which is why the foundation is buying land in that area.
The term "massively scalable" crops up in his writings and in conversation. Ultimately, Hall envisions large collections of communities that form a megalopolis that could be replicated anywhere in the world.
“You can’t consume energy like we do, you can’t have waste products, you can’t sprawl, you can’t use systems that are not scalable to 7 billion people. It’s tough,” he explains.
Hall is working to create those systems at the foundation’s 200-acre headquarters in Provo.
For example, there’s a design for a toilet that uses foam instead of water and sends waste to a central digester.
“While we’re at it, we build into that toilet all kinds of smart sensors so that it’s your daily nurse. It’s monitoring your health, it knows from your waste products what you ate,” he says.
Within the next year Hall says he, his wife and some of his employees will occupy a prototype of the housing he envisions.
Hall says a community in Vermont could be decades away because much remains to be worked out.
“What we would hope to [do] in Vermont before it’s a full community is at least try some of the gardening systems and the greenhouse systems before 20 or 30 years are gone,” he says.
The community Hall hopes to build would be within, but in many ways separate, from the towns where he’s buying land. It would have its own economy and system of governance.
Residents would deposit their assets into community funds used to build infrastructure and finance businesses.
Hall says because residents' needs would be met within the community, there would no additional burden on town or state infrastructure or services. The state will benefit, he says, because it, "won’t have the issues that Vermont currently has of young people having to leave".
Hall steers clear of using the word "utopia" to describe what he has in mind.
“Utopia is just that. Unachievable,” he says, laughing. “We’re not going there at all!”
For the moment, Hall says the foundation will continue to buy land, especially near the Vermont Law School in South Royalton.
Hall says he would like to work with the school, known for environmental law. But a spokeswoman says the school has not talked with Hall or his foundation and has no plans to be involved in the project.
In the meantime residents of the four towns are watching to see how much land the foundation purchases and the impact it has on property values.
Sharon Selectboard chairman Kevin Blakeman is a local realtor. The foundation has purchased land just up the road from him.
“There is concern that it will set some kind of precedent or affect the taxes because properties are now sold for that price and that’s how the taxes are set. The fact that he has so much money, nothing wrong with that, but he’s in a different league than a lot of other people,” says Blakeman.
Hall says his daughter will be moving to Vermont and he’ll also be visiting.
He says in addition to buying land, he’s interested in helping to restore historic buildings in the villages near his planned community.