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Video: Developer Spells Out Vision

Utah Magnate Buying Up Hundreds of Acres in Upper Valley

  • David Hall, founder and president of the NewVista Foundation, is buying land in central Vermont to execute his vision of an eco-friendly community of 20,000 residents in Strafford, Sharon, Tunbridge and Royalton. Hall talks with the Valley News Editorial Board in West Lebanon, N.H. June 2, 2016. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • An artist's rendering of a NewVista community is shown on their website. Utah resident David Hall has been buying land in Royalton, Sharon, Strafford and Tunbridge, Vt., hoping to build an intentional community. (Courtesy The NewVista Foundation)



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, June 03, 2016

Royalton — On Thursday, a man who has been buying hundreds of acres in the Upper Valley revealed new details about his plans to found an eco-friendly community of 20,000 in Strafford, Sharon, Tunbridge and Royalton.

David Hall’s proposed massive development is notable both for its boldness, and for its unusual pedigree — the community’s design is based on the detailed instructions of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, who said he received them in a spiritual vision 186 years ago.

Hall, an oil industry inventor who has become an environmentalist, has put more than $100 million into NewVista Foundation, and says he hopes that, over the next few decades, it will be the first in a network of 50 such communities, with a total population of a million people.

Hall, 69, said he doesn’t intend to purchase any more properties in the near future, and that his activities over the next couple of years will likely consist mostly of maintaining his newly acquired holdings, and working with local farmers to test out a novel new farming method.

Hall said his background has prepared him to withstand criticisms from those who scoff at his ideas.

“Remember, I’m an innovator, and I’m a fourth-generation innovator,” Hall said. “When you’re innovating things, new ideas are tough for people, even when it comes in the sciences. You have to roll with the punches. But I’ve also worked on this for so long I’m confident in what I’m doing. It might not work, but I’m confident.”

The communities would operate under dramatically different rules from the towns in which they are located — a 1.2-square-mile grid would hold a cluster of three-story eight-unit apartment buildings, centered around 24 centrally located four-story community buildings that would house everything from places of worship to private schools to underground Olympic-sized swimming pools.

The economy would be underpinned by a new form of “cubed greenhouses,” which would cover the surrounding land.

“The whole community is agriculture, every square foot,” Hall said. “Even the roofs of the houses. So it’s all agriculture.”

Hall discussed the details at the Valley News during a three-day trip to the area during which Kevin Ellis, a lobbyist recently hired by Hall, was scheduled to introduce him to officials from the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Planning Commission, Vermont Technical College and Vermont Law School.

He might also meet with the Preservation Trust of Vermont and some legislators during this trip, he said.

After the meeting with the Planning Commission, Executive Director Peter Gregory said in an email that members of the Planning Commission’s executive committee and representatives from the affected towns appreciated the chance to learn more about the plan.

“The questions were good and while some attendees had strong concerns about the possible scale of the proposal, others seemed to take a wait-and-see attitude,” Gregory said. “Mr. Hall intends to have public meetings in the towns this summer.”

Public opinion in the four towns that would host the community has been mostly negative, with a series of social media sites springing up to oppose the project. Hall said that he had not yet met any community residents who expressed enthusiastic support.

Hall was clearly more enthused about the engineering and logistical aspects of the project than the political implications. He answered questions about the design of the apartments with in-depth details about innovative toilet and solid waste systems and geothermal heating.

Other answers were less specific, as when he was asked about what would happen to the land in the event the project was halted short of completion.

“It would go back on the market, I guess,” he said. “Or maybe it would go into conservancy. Who knows?”

He said he didn’t think the project would create negative impacts on the four towns.

“I hope not,” he said. “If we see that happening, then we’ll figure something out better. We shouldn’t be. If we do have a negative impact, that’s a problem.

“It’s supposed to be a positive impact.”

Hall said that, while he recognizes a NewVista lifestyle would be much different, the plan calls for setting aside wilderness areas that would allow more of the state to be covered with healthy natural ecosystems.

“You kind of consolidate the people, and let the bears have their territory as well,” he said.

Hall acknowledged that some people think the project is ambitious to the point of improbability. After 40 years of pursuing this dream, he said, he takes it in stride.

“I expect success, and I’ve had a lot of success in my life,” he said. “I expect it will, you know, be successful in at least parts of it. For example, here in Vermont, I think we’ll have a lot of success on the agriculture end, even if we never get to the residential and commercial side. We just forge ahead, and try things.”

Since his first property acquisition in the fall, Hall has scooped up about 1,500 acres, nearly a third of the land that falls within his area of interest.

“I never intended to do it as fast as has happened. ... People started coming to us,” he said. “So we’ve gone over this year’s budget but picked up some opportunities.”

Hall said that, while he’s constrained by a land acquisition budget of a “couple of million” a year, he’s loathe to pass up opportunities because “if you allow a piece of land to sell onto somebody else, it’s probably going to be a generation or more before it’s available again.”

In each deal, he said, he has paid the appraised value of the property.

Hall declined to release a full list of the properties because, he said, some of the sellers have faced criticism from neighbors who are opposed to the idea.

Hall’s holdings include a 10-acre property at 180 Sugar Hill Lane in Royalton, and 450 acres at 1631 Clifford Farm Road that straddle Sharon, Strafford and Tunbridge.

If Hall does succeed, his development would bring 20,000 people to four towns that have a combined population of less than 6,700.

The ultimate goal, he said, is to create a model community that has the power to solve many of the world’s environmental problems.

“I would hope that this system scales to the world because it’s a way to get green,” he said. “I haven’t seen any other system that’s going to get us there,” he said.

Hall said he’s working to design the community in a way that would lower the cost of living by half, and lower the environmental impact of its residents by 90 percent compared to those living outside the community.

While NewVista residents would be free to send their children to public schools, the community would have a private school system built into it.

The community would have its own economy, with financial planners loaning community capital to business ventures of its residents. Money generated by those business ventures would come back to reduce the living expenses of residents.

Hall said the model harnesses the power of capitalism without allowing an individual capitalist to dominate the scene for a personal benefit.

The large size of the community, he said, is needed to gain the scale needed to support the development’s internal economy.

After Smith and two other people experienced what they called a revelation from God during which they literally saw images of the community, Smith wrote out crude blueprints that specified, for example, half-acre lots and streets of 132 feet in width.

Though he’s working from Smith’s notes, Hall said the community will in no way promote the Mormon faith; worship spaces will be available in the central buildings to any spiritual group in residence, he said.

For now, Hall said, the houses on the land he owns are being maintained and repaired so that he can lease them out. In the coming two years, he said, he hopes to acquire more land, but the most important milestone will be proof that the innovative cubed greenhouses actually work.

The greenhouses, which he said have been inspired by designs used to grow marijuana in Colorado, can be assembled in large contiguous blocks, with the farmers walking on top of them.

“We’ll be working with successful local farmers and our engineering company and hopefully with the schools to prove out the agricultural end of it,” he said.

Hall has been working for 40 years to consolidate land for a similar community in Utah, and has purchased land in India and Bhutan for the same purpose. He said he is actively exploring real estate in other U.S. states, but declined to name them.

He said he has about 150 employees working on the global project, with most of them involved in engineering solutions to its many design obstacles.

He estimated that eight people in Vermont have been hired by him, mostly as contractors, to work toward the local community.

Hall plans to return to the area in July, and again in August.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.