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NewVista Opponent Strengthens



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, October 01, 2016

South Royalton — A nonprofit recently formed to block a Utah engineer’s plans for a massive settlement in four White River Valley towns has garnered support from two statewide conservation organizations that have sought to influence past regulatory proceedings for large proposed developments.

The new nonprofit, a coalition of local land-use planners and concerned citizens called the Alliance for Vermont Communities, on Wednesday announced it had the support of the Vermont Natural Resources Council and the Preservation Trust of Vermont.

Leaders from each of these groups said they planned to stop David Hall and his “NewVista” development — a planned city of thousands for which Hall already has purchased 1,400 acres of a planned 5,000 — by any means necessary.

“The Preservation Trust of Vermont stands side-by-side with all of you to use all legal means to halt this ill-conceived development,” Peter Brink, a Norwich resident and chairman of the Preservation Trust, said in a statement on Wednesday.

Members of the alliance said in a news release that they hoped to use regional and town plans to enshrine their values and obstruct NewVista, as well as defend Act 250, the statewide law governing large developments, against any attempts to weaken or repeal it.

They also have explored the idea of persuading landowners and land trusts to place conservation easements on property that Hall might wish to use.

“The NewVista development is a bad idea for Vermont,” said Brian Shupe, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, “and VNRC, in partnership with AVC, will use all available tools to defeat it.”

Shupe warned that NewVista, as an independent settlement and political entity, would “undermine, if not destroy, the character and culture of existing communities that have grown up organically — in part because new residents and businesses have opportunities to integrate into that culture through engagement in civic institutions that are accessible and inclusive of all local citizens.”

VNRC’s tools include a team of experienced lawyers whom it has dispatched over the past few years to fight developments it deems inappropriate, including a 172-acre multi-use development proposed at the Interstate 89 exit in Randolph.

The environmental group’s attorneys engaged the developer in that case, Jesse “Sam” Sammis, in permitting proceedings under Act 250.

Sammis put the project on hold in February, though he says he still plans to continue with some form of development there.

“It certainly adds a lot of extra heavy weight,” Suzanne Butterfield, a former Act 250 district commissioner who lives in Stockbridge, Vt., said of the environmental groups’ participation. “They know the law.”

For the purposes of Act 250, Vermont is divided into nine district commissions that hear cases and decide whether to issue permits to developments based on such considerations as whether they conform to town and regional plans and their potential impact on such things as transportation, aesthetics, agriculture and the environment.

Other experts, such as Peter Van Oot, Sammis’ attorney in the Randolph case and a former chairman of an Act 250 commission in the Northeast Kingdom, said that a given case’s outcome depends more on the merits of the law than of each side’s lawyers.

“(The commissions) are charged to evaluate the facts and the law and to apply the facts to the law and render a decision,” he said.

As for the advocacy groups, he said, “Their very participation doesn’t necessarily change much, but if they’re good at what they do, that changes their side. If you have good lawyers and good consultants, that’s going to help your case, no matter what side you’re on.”

Former district commission Chairman Joshua “Bushrod” Powers, of Royalton, noted that these disputes often went beyond Act 250 proceedings to Superior Court and on.

“When you get a lot of argument, you generally end up with lawyers on one side and lawyers on the other side, and ultimately the whole thing, especially if it’s a big one, will end up in the court system,” Powers said.

All the same, he said, an attorney is not required for success.

“The lovely thing about Act 250,” he said, “is you don’t have to have a dime to fight.”

Provided that a person doesn’t “carry on forever” in argument, and that he or she has a legitimate interest in the case, Powers said, a district commission will listen and apply the law.

Van Oot noted that obtaining “party” status, or the right to participate, in a case often proves a significant factor in its resolution. When outside groups get involved, they potentially gain the ability to appeal the results to Environmental Court and eventually to the Vermont Supreme Court, he said.

Michael Sacca, a Tunbridge video producer who is president of the Alliance for Vermont Communities board, appeared ready to go the distance.

“If necessary, we will use every legal means available to us to block the project,” he said in a Wednesday statement.

“It is strong language,” he added, speaking in an interview on Thursday, “because this is somewhat of an injustice. We think that someone with tons of money wants to use that to further their own interest. We don’t have a lot of money, but what we do have is a lot of people on our side, and I think that’s how we’re going to balance this crazy monetary equation out.”

Sacca emphasized during the conversation that the group’s opposition was not to Hall himself, but rather to his ideas. And part of the alliance’s charge, Sacca said, is to plan for sustainable land use in the future, regardless of the success of NewVista.

“We really believe that the people who live here can figure this out,” he said. “We’re not saying we have all the answers on how best to do things — and certainly transportation is an issue for people living in a Vermont rural area — but I think we can figure it out.”

Hall, a multimillionaire engineer from Provo, Utah, who made his fortune in drilling technology, says his 5,000-acre NewVista development would house around 20,000 people and be self-sustaining, carbon-neutral and nearly endlessly scalable.

In an email on Thursday, Hall argued that he and the environmental advocates shared some of the same goals.

“The NewVistas foundation has a goal of preserving 2/3 of the land for conservation,” he said. “The other 1/3 is for farms and people.”

He based the idea on designs by the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, who was born nearby in Sharon. Nevertheless, a NewVista community would be areligious, Hall says, and has no connection to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns the Joseph Smith Birthplace Memorial.

The church has distanced itself from Hall’s vision.

Hall sought to establish distance of another kind, noting that his dream will take decades to realize. In the past, the Utah developer has said his children are ready to carry on the work of NewVista after he dies.

“The project is way off into the future,” he said, “and I have never expected the existing nor next generation to support the concept.”

Sacca, the alliance board president, said he doubted that future generations would support NewVista any more than living generations.

“I don’t think Mr. Hall has a firm basis for saying that people in the future will accept this,” Sacca said. “I don’t understand where that’s coming from, because he doesn’t know us, he doesn’t know the people, he doesn’t know the land. He hasn’t spent a lot of time here.”

“We’re in this for the long haul,” Sacca added. “We figure our kids will inherit this if necessary.”

As will Hall’s.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.