Royalton — A wealthy Mormon developer is buying land in four towns near the Joseph Smith Memorial in hopes of building a planned community there inspired in part by the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
David R. Hall, an engineer from Provo, Utah, has purchased at least 10 properties near the Sharon birthplace of Joseph Smith for a total of nearly 900 acres in Royalton, Sharon, Strafford and Tunbridge — and he says he’s just getting started.
Over the next 30 to 50 years, Hall hopes to realize plans by the Mormon religious leader to create an integrated community that could house as many as 20,000 people within a few square miles. In a telephone interview Tuesday, Hall said he was hoping to purchase enough land to create a large contiguous plot on which to base his development, which he hopes could provide a model for an environmentally friendly, sustainable way of living.
“We’re trying to create a system where we have industry, commerce, local food, all walkable, all together,” Hall said.
In 1833, Smith and his followers imagined something they called a “Plat,” or “Plot,” of Zion — a city on a rectangular grid that would integrate all needs of a community into one design.
“That’s the fundamental background,” Hall said. “We’re of course doing all the engineering to figure out how it might work.”
Hall, who is heir to a large fortune, says he is spending a considerable amount of money on this plan: between $15 million and $20 million a year on engineering and research alone.
“We’re a long ways from getting it done,” he said.
The work will take so long that Hall, 69, has created a nonprofit organization to carry on after he dies.
The NewVista Foundation, of which Hall is director, has about $100 million at its disposal, he says. Much of that money came from his recent sale of the family business, a technology company called Novatek that his late father, H. Tracy Hall, founded in 1955.
The elder Hall invented the technique used to create synthetic diamonds.
As a child, David Hall lived in Schenectady, N.Y., and occasionally traveled to the White River Valley for camping and visits to the Smith Memorial. Hall said he had dreamed up his project in the 1970s, and had chosen to execute it here because of his childhood love for the site.
The land purchases began this fall. Through local attorney Brooke Hague Trottier, The NewVista Foundation bought a house and 10 acres at 180 Sugar Hill Lane in Royalton for about $400,000.
Since then, Hall’s foundation has scooped up nine more properties, for a total of more than $3.5 million.
The largest is 1631 Clifford Farm Road, a 450-acre property just north of the memorial site that straddles Sharon, Strafford and Tunbridge, which sold for $1.35 million.
Hall and his intermediaries have not broadcast their work and, in fact, have not reached out to any local officials, he said — not even to representatives of the Mormon church.
”They don’t even know what we’re doing, and they’re totally separate,” he said of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. “It’s not something that they would do. They moved away from community-building way back — 1860, 1870, at least.”
Church officials in Salt Lake City, Utah, where the church is headquartered, were not immediately able to comment.
Hall said that the community, when finished, would be open to everyone.
“This is not a religious thing,” he said. “It’s not associated with religion at all. Joe Smith might have had the idea, but it’s for everybody.”
Kevin Blakeman, chairman of the Sharon Selectboard, said Hall hadn’t reached out to town leaders there; nevertheless, Blakeman, a real estate agent, said he had caught wind of the buying spree by word of mouth.
In an interview Tuesday, Blakeman said he had visited NewVista’s website and glanced at its designs, but said he hadn’t seen how many people could reside in the development.
“That’s pretty … ” he said, trailing off after hearing the number. “I mean, that’s several times the population of the town.”
The four towns combined have 6,657 residents, according to census data.
“If (Sharon) grew to 10 times its population, it would change things, wouldn’t it?” Blakeman said.
Euclid Farnham, the town moderator in Tunbridge, noted that the project could bring economic activity to the area, but said he and many other residents likely would oppose developments of this size.
“I’m not very happy about it,” he said by phone Wednesday. “This is a small community, Tunbridge, and we certainly don’t want major development ruining the peace and tranquility that we have.”
For his part, Hall says people here should have little cause for concern.
“I don’t think people need to react, because it’s going to take so long to get it done,” he said. “It might take 50 years just to consolidate the land.”
Hall said he hopes to work with the Vermont Law School in South Royalton — “The best environmental law school in the country,” he called it — and floated the idea of building a research center nearby and giving grants to professors there.
Blakeman added that he would be happy to speak with Hall, but said he had no reason to reach out to the developer, for the moment.
“I guess I’m kind of curious as to what their plans are,” the Selectboard chairman said. “I would say that major changes would require permits, but until then there’s no reason for us to do anything.”
Rob Wolfe can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3242.