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Utah Developer Cancels Meeting

  • 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)

  • 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.



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Royalton — The Utah multimillionaire planning a massive settlement in four Upper Valley towns has backed out of an October meeting that he had requested with Royalton officials, citing the potential for opposition protesters.

All the same, David Hall, of Provo, Utah, said his opponents will not stop him from pursuing his long-term goal.

A Royalton planning official, meanwhile, characterized Hall’s decision as “annoying.”

Hall had been scheduled to make a presentation on Oct. 4 to the Royalton Planning Commission about his plan to build a sustainable, high-density settlement for thousands of people near the birthplace of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith.

“I heard that there were going to be a bunch of protests against me,” he said in a telephone interview on Monday night. “If people aren’t willing to come and discuss, and just want to protest, I don’t want to come anyway.”

Hall said he is scheduled to travel to China in a few days for a business trip. He said he was due to return in time for the October meeting, but instead will extend his stay abroad.

The Utah developer, whose proposal has drawn vehement opposition, has been the subject of protests in Vermont in the past, some of them organized by an opposition group called Stop NewVistas.

The group has posted anti-NewVista lawn signs across the four towns — Royalton, Sharon, Strafford and Tunbridge — where Hall, who made a fortune in drilling technology, so far has purchased more than a thousand acres of land.

The protests have turned personal at some points — an effigy of Hall bearing dollar signs and the moniker “Diamond Dave” has made a few appearances — and on Monday he said he wanted to avoid being a “target.”

“I’ve gotten threatening letters from people,” Hall said. “It’s gotten ridiculous.”

Royalton Planning Commission Chairwoman Beth Willhite said Monday night that she received the news earlier in the day in a short email from Hall’s Montpelier-based spokesman Bryan Mills. Mills didn’t give a reason for the cancellation, but offered to speak more by phone, she said.

Mills could not be reached for comment on Monday evening.

“It’s annoying, to say the least,” Willhite said.

The Planning Commission already had booked space and incurred expenses by placing legally required ads in newspapers, she said, all for a meeting that Hall had requested.

“The guy is his own worst enemy,” Willhite said of Hall. Given that the meeting had been heavily previewed in articles and advertisements, she said, “anybody who’s watching this story will see that he canceled.”

“They are within their rights, clearly, to not come — we didn’t ask them to come — but it’s not going to help his (public relations) problem at all,” she added.

The Royalton Planning Commission had planned to meet twice — the second time without Hall, to gauge residents’ reactions to his ideas — and now will have to change its plans.

Willhite said she hoped to work with the Selectboard to hold a public hearing in the next month to let people air their views.

Earlier this month, Willhite said in an interview that she was aware of efforts to organize a protest against Hall.

On Monday night, she said she had requested a police presence at the Oct. 4 meeting, and had warned Mills about the possible demonstrators.

A member of the Alliance for Vermont Communities, a nonprofit that opposes NewVista, said on Monday that something had been in the works, although he didn’t refer to it as a protest.

“People weren’t going to show up to lend their support to the project,” said John Echeverria, a Vermont Law School professor and Strafford Planning Commission member who also sits on the alliance’s board. “All I can say is there was going to be an effort to turn out people to express, on an appropriate occasion, their opposition to the project.”

The canceled meeting comes as planning commissions in all four communities are considering changes to their land-use regulations in response to NewVista.

Strafford, for instance, has weighed restrictions on density and road access that could hamper Hall’s plans.

In March, Hall said he hoped to convince Vermonters that a development of this size was a necessary solution to rural sprawl — that is, far-flung residential development that strains public services — and environmental decay.

“If the people of Vermont can’t come to really love the concept, it’s not going to be done,” he said. “And that’s OK. I’m OK with that. Developers shouldn’t be able to force things on people.”

On Monday, Hall clarified his timeline, saying his work was not meant to please this generation, or even the next.

“It’s for their grandchildren,” he said. “I know that this generation and the next generation won’t want it. So that’s probably a misunderstanding, too. I’ve known that since the beginning. If in the future Vermont doesn’t want it, it’ll never be done. But I know existing people — it’s NIMBY-ism. You can predict it all the time — it doesn’t matter where you go.”

(NIMBY, which stands for “Not In My Backyard,” is a disparaging term for residents who oppose development in their area.)

He added later, “Long term, if Vermont never wants it, it’ll never get done. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to back down now.”

Echeverria, on the other hand, questioned whether Upper Valley residents of any generation would ever support Hall’s plans.

“If his position is he doesn’t care what anyone thinks, he’s not going to generate a lot of goodwill in the Upper Valley,” Echeverria said. “Our hope is that he recognizes that this isn’t attractive to the current generation and the project isn’t going to be any more attractive to future generations.

“He should take his ideas and his money and he should redeploy them in a different direction.”

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