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Holding Out Against NewVista Developer’s Dreams of Utopia

  • Tunbridge resident Jane Huppee sits on her front porch with her husband Jerry displaying several of their handmade signs protesting David Hall's purchases for his NewVista development, which are slowly surrounding their property, including the land she sits in front of. Although several of their neighbors are selling off land to Hall, the Huppees have no plans of leaving their house. “It’s our forever home, and we’re not leaving it. I hope to die in this home,” said Jane Huppee, “We’re strong and committed Vermonters, and we’re not going anywhere.” (Valley News - Mac Snyder) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, June 25, 2016

Tunbridge — Month by month, looking out from her deck on Button Hill, Jane Huppee has watched her neighborhood fade away.

Metaphorically, that is — the rolling green landscape of Tunbridge and Royalton still is visible from her porch — and yet one by one, her neighbors have been selling their properties to a Utah engineer with utopian dreams.

Now, the whole hillside in front of her belongs to the NewVista Foundation, whose proprietor, David R. Hall, plans to acquire enough land to build a high-density, self-sustaining community of thousands here. Hall has acknowledged that his vision could decades to reach fruition, though, and in the meantime the property will remain in his hands and off the market.

“It’s incredible, sitting on my deck, looking out, to know that it’s gone,” Huppee said. “And it’s potentially gone forever, because this foundation could go on into perpetuity.”

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The speed and scope of Hall’s buying spree have neighbors like Huppee worried about what to do with their land. Moreover, it has sparked a flurry of predictions and concerns about the local real estate market, which is seeing a jump in activity.

Since fall 2015, Hall has made land purchases of at least $4 million, according to town clerks — and he has done so rapidly.

When news of his acquisitions broke in March, he had nearly 900 acres of a planned 5,000. As of Thursday, town clerks in Royalton, Sharon, Strafford and Tunbridge pegged his holdings at more than 1,200 acres.

And more is coming, Hall said: 1,400 acres in the near future. Huppee, for her part, knows of several neighbors who either intend to sell or are closing now. Just before an interview on Thursday, she said, she saw Hall’s representatives visiting a landowner across the street.

“We’re losing a lot,” Huppee said, “and we’re losing it fast.”

And as Huppee’s neighbors close their deals and, in some cases, move away, she is left wondering what to do.

Although she doesn’t want Hall to acquire her land, she is 58, and she and her husband have no children. When they die or are forced to move away, the property will be up for grabs.

About a month ago, Huppee and more than 20 neighbors gathered to discuss NewVista.

“There were different views,” she said. “We’re certainly not judging anyone if they do sell, but different people have different situations. Some people aren’t all that connected to this place, and some are very connected. It just depends.”

Since then, more people have been approached by Hall’s representatives, she said, “and it’s put a fear into our neighborhood like I’ve never seen before. A fear (about) what’s it going to do to our property values, what’s it going to do to future opportunities to sell our property. The uncertainty of what’s going to happen if we don’t sell. I think he’s created an artificial market that wouldn’t be there otherwise that’s preying on people’s fears and vulnerabilities. And it’s prevented other people from coming into this area that might otherwise have done so.”

In 2014, Tunbridge saw four “valid sales,” meaning sales through the open market that did not involve complicating factors like family relationships and non-monetary exchanges. In 2015, there were eight such deals, according to the town listers, and so far in 2016, the provisional number is 15.

“There clearly has been a significant uptick in market transactions,” lister Rudi Ruddell said, although he added that it was unclear how many were due to Hall.

Many White River Valley residents have speculated that the activity — as well as Hall’s tendency to buy near list price, in cash — could drive up the market. Others, such as Vermont Law School professor John Echeverria, said the inverse could occur.

“On the one hand, logic suggests that a brand-new, wealthy buyer would drive up prices,” Echeverria said.

“On the other, logic suggests that such a proposal might drive people out of town and bring down prices.”

Echeverria, a Strafford resident, said he didn’t know anyone who had sold or was thinking of selling property to Hall. But he has heard of potential buyers choosing to invest elsewhere.

“That response stands to reason, I think,” he said. “So the longer this project threatens the region, the greater the risk that there’ll be a longer-term effect on property values in the area.”

Real estate agents and assessors in the area cautioned, however, that it was too soon to gauge the market’s reaction.

“I have no idea how Mr. Hall’s plans will affect property values, and frankly, any real estate professional claiming insight into this (or any other) scenario without hard data to back them up is engaged in speculating, and doing the public a disservice,” Steve Lagasse, an appraiser in White River Junction, said in an email last week.

Ann Swanson, a Thetford-based real estate agent who does business throughout the White River Valley, agreed. But as Hall’s agents snap up hard-to-sell properties, some of which have been on the market for years, that could create its own kind of niche market, she said — a market that the Utah businessman has cornered.

“Those are sales that may not have happened otherwise, because there may not have buyers otherwise,” she said.

Come what may for real-estate prices, Swanson advised sellers to be careful not to make assumptions when putting their property on the market.

“I don’t think people can expect that their houses are going to be worth more because Mr. Hall paid ($1.5 million) for the Clifford Farm,” she said, referring to one of his larger purchases. “He’s not going to pay that if he’s not interested in your house.”

She also said sellers should make it clear, when they put their houses on the market, whether or not they would be willing to sell to Hall. Noting that she is not a lawyer, she raised the possibility that, without this precaution, rejecting a Hall offer could mean a seller owes money to his or her real estate agent.

“If I bring a ($1.5 million offer) to the table, I could be entitled to a commission,” she said.

Recently, Swanson listed a property for a woman in Sharon who came to the Thetford real estate agent to say her neighbors had concerns.

“They were terrified she was going to sell to Mr. Hall,” Swanson said, “and she said, ‘Under no circumstances am I going to sell to him.’ ”

“However,” she added, “I have other sellers who are not so comfortably well off, who have approached me to say, ‘You know, if he wants to buy my property, let him know I want to sell to him.’ ”

The result of the attention on Hall may have been to speed along his project. Reached by email last week, he said there had been more demand than he had been able to meet in this year’s budget.

Eventually he hopes to create a self-sustaining, carbon-neutral city of thousands on 5,000 acres near the birthplace of Joseph Smith. Hall has said he takes his inspiration from writings of Smith, the Mormon prophet, and the Mormon church owns the Smith Memorial, but Hall also says his plan is nonreligious.

To realize his dream, Hall will have to outwait or outwit people like Huppee, who has joined a group of residents who intend to fight the NewVista project.

She and others surrounded by Hall-owned land say they have considered putting their properties under conservation easements, which could stop development there, or donating them to conservation organizations.

A few doors down from Huppee, on Dairy Hill Road, 80-year-old Betty Lawhite owns more than 100 acres in Royalton, Sharon and Tunbridge.

She does not intend to sell it.

Lawhite has lived here 54 years. Both of her sons are engineers and live in New England, she said, and at least one is planning to settle down here.

“They both say to me they can’t imagine not owning this land,” she said, so until they are ready to take over, “I am essentially keeper of the flame.”

Although Hall’s representatives have been making the rounds with her neighbors, Lawhite said, she hasn’t yet heard from them. On the other hand, she has been checking her caller ID.

“It could be some of these phone calls that I’m not answering,” she said.

The opponents have their own website, stopnewvistas.org, and earlier this month they staged a protest on the Chelsea Street Bridge in Royalton, where a floating effigy of Hall, complete with dollar signs on its palms and forehead, smiled down on the sign-waving crowd.

“We’re just beginning,” Huppee said, “but we will persist, and we will fight as long as we have to.”

 

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