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Utah Futurist Rebrands NewVistas Effort



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, August 20, 2017

Royalton — David Hall, the Utah engineer who envisions a planned settlement of thousands in four White River Valley towns, is renaming his operation here as he works to overcome local opposition to his plans.

Even as Hall shifts his attention from acquiring land to cultivating businesses based on technological innovations needed to realize his dream, Vermont planners and activists are moving to alter town plans as a way of promoting their own vision, rather than Hall’s, for the region’s future.

The roughly 1,500 acres on which Hall eventually hopes to build his community now belong to a new legal entity, Windsorange LLC, that he says is part of an effort to “rebrand” his enterprise and allay fears that his plan, known as NewVistas, is coming anytime soon.

The name is a combination of the two Vermont counties, Windsor and Orange, that Hall says he hopes to “improve.”

“What people never caught on to is (that) NewVistas is way in the future, and the first thing that needs to be done is jobs and commerce,” Hall said in an interview last week. “I decided to change the name so that people didn’t think we were trying to do NewVistas right away.”

The land that Hall has acquired in Royalton, Sharon, Strafford and Tunbridge is less than a third of the 5,000 acres that he envisions will hold a self-sustaining, carbon-neutral city based on designs from Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, who was born in Sharon.

Although the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints owns the Joseph Smith Memorial near Hall’s holdings, the Mormon church has denied any connection to the wealthy Provo, Utah, futurist.

The 70-year-old Hall, who always has maintained that a NewVistas community in Vermont is decades away, now says he is focusing on offshoots of the research needed to make his self-sustaining communities possible.

“I have lots of expanding businesses under my umbrella,” he said, “and so what my hope is, is to get some good cooperation with other key people in the area” — potential partnerships that could bring to the White River Valley some “good jobs,” he said.

Hall declined to name his contacts or put the Valley News in touch with them, saying that would be “premature.”

Around the time his plans first became public, in 2016, he mentioned he might like to find a foothold in the Upper Valley by establishing a research partnership with Vermont Law School.

“I tried,” he said last week, but “I got soundly rejected. So I’ll just wait. My ideas are too far out for most people. But I’m patient. I can wait.”

The website for Hall’s research group, Hall Labs, showcases eight businesses with products on the market, all of them with futuristic-sounding names such as “office.xyz,” “Medic.Life” and “Vanderhall.”

Those last two are the most promising so far, Hall says.

Vanderhall, a boutique auto company, manufactures cars from a single sheet of metal using precise laser cutting techniques. The result is a lightweight, custom-made specialty car with three wheels that looks somewhat like a motorcycle with doors.

The name — Vanderhall — is a mashup of David Hall’s last name and that of his wife, nee Karen Van Dyke. The company’s president, their son Steve, appeared earlier this month on Jay Leno’s Garage, the CNBC show featuring the former late night comedian.

Vanderhall’s inventory is low, at about 1,000 per model, but sales are steady, and a new branch of this or another of Hall’s companies might someday open in the Upper Valley, he said.

The other major project, Medic.Life, will have the greatest long-term effect on its industry, Hall says. The company’s health-taking toilet technology is designed to analyze the user’s vitals, finding patterns and giving warnings before treatment is necessary.

“Right now we react when we’re sick,” Hall said. “We go to the hospital after the fact. And that’s ridiculous. What we need is something that’s gathering info about us our whole lives, finding the trends ... and processing the data.”

Hall’s land acquisition has come to a halt for the moment, remaining at about 1,500 acres in the four towns after an influx of offers drove him over budget. But however far off his goal may be, the question remains of what he will do with the land he has taken off the market.

Hall says he has fixed up several of the properties he bought and that he maintains them and pays taxes on them. Yet some of the old buildings he has acquired may be too decrepit to warrant repairs, he says.

“There’s really questions as to whether it’s best to tear them down and restore the land or to fix them up,” he said.

Those questions led to other questions. “What roads can I get rid of and what buildings can I tear down to start my consolidation ideas?” he said.

Despite’s Hall’s assurances that a Vermont settlement is a long way off, local critics, most prominent among them the Alliance for Vermont Communities, have continued their work to unite the community under a different vision.

Michael Sacca, a freelance producer from Tunbridge who serves as president of the alliance, expressed frustration last week at Hall’s determination to pursue his dream, regardless of the community’s response.

Sacca cited this spring’s Town Meeting votes on anti-NewVistas resolutions in the four communities, all of which overwhelmingly came down against Hall’s idea.

“It’s disappointing to us that he has this attitude that everything’s fine,” Sacca said.

“ ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter, it’s in the future,’ ” he said, channeling Hall. “But my sons are living here. There are plenty of people who are staying here. It’s not as if the situation’s going to change. There’s a lot of people working to protect this rural heritage.”

To advance its own vision for a vibrant rural community, the Alliance for Vermont Communities recently held a cycling event in Tunbridge, a 16-mile and 32-mile course called the Ranger Ride.

The June event brought riders through many of the lands the alliance deems in danger of development by Hall.

Sacca said his group was planning more events, including public forums, to take place soon.

Many alliance board members also happen to serve on the four towns’ planning commissions, all of which are in some stage of revisions to their town plans.

Town plans are periodically updated documents that describe communities’ vision for future land use and development.

Though they do not carry the same regulatory force as, say, zoning, they inform development of regulations and, if worded carefully, can have significant influence in the permitting process under Act 250, the Vermont law governing large-scale developments.

Planners in the four towns last week said they are taking residents’ views on NewVistas into account, and, in some cases, have been weighing changes that could limit the idea’s feasibility.

Beth Willhite, chairwoman of the Royalton Planning Commission, said the panel was preparing to advance a few small changes to the Town Plan “to state where we are, but in more firm language — that in farm areas we want farming and we don’t want multi-unit housing or developments.”

The commission likely will hold a public forum soon to discuss these potential changes, she said, after which the Selectboard would have the power to ratify them.

Willhite said the Royalton Planning Commission also was considering changes to the Town Plan addressing allowable density — Hall’s NewVistas development would pack roughly 20,000 people into a few thousand acres. But before it makes any final decisions, the commission is consulting local farmers and other businesses to see what their needs are, she said.

“Once you start passing regulations it applies to all and not some,” Willhite said, “and so you have to be sure you’re planning for what you want.”

Peter Anderson, a member of the Sharon Planning Commission, said that town’s land use board was revising language in the Town Plan relating to rural, residential and forested areas.

Other than that, he kept the commission’s talks, which are far from final, close to the chest.

“I’m not ready to say we tailored it for the NewVista,” he said in an interview last week. “I think it’s more like we consciously went over it to see what was there (that needed updates).”

In Strafford, the Selectboard is considering a proposal submitted by the Planning Commission that could make developments like Hall’s more difficult in that town.

Toni Pippy, chairwoman of the Selectboard, said a final hearing on the changes would likely take place in September.

“NewVista has definitely had something to do with our plan,” she said. “I think the neighborhood is pretty nervous about what he could do to our world. Hopefully what’s in the plan will help.”

Among other changes, the Selectboard is mulling modifications that would break the existing “rural residential” district into two new districts, each with new expectations for low-density development.

Strafford is the only town among these four that has zoning, apart from some flood plain regulations in other towns. If its Selectboard were to pass these changes, they could lead to zoning changes, too, Pippy said.

Tunbridge also is nearing changes to its Town Plan, which expires in spring 2018.

Co-Chairwoman Ingrid Van Steamburg, who also is a member of the alliance board, said some potential revisions are designed to strengthen the regulatory weight of the Town Plan under Act 250 proceedings.

Regional planners have met with the four towns’ planning commissions and informed them that such changes as revising “should” to “shall” in town plans gives them more power.

“It was explained to all of the towns that if you don’t have strong language it doesn’t have a lot of weight in those hearings,” Van Steamburg said.

A public hearing on Town Plan updates in Tunbridge will take place Monday night at 7 p.m. at the Town Hall.

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