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Town Plans Address NewVista’s Impact

  • 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
Saturday, September 17, 2016

Strafford — With their individual town plans scheduled to come up for revision over the next few years, land-use officials in the four Vermont towns where a Utah developer envisions a settlement of thousands are considering changes that could protect their communities.

The discussion comes into swing as David Hall, a multimillionaire who is buying up land in Royalton, Sharon, Strafford and Tunbridge, is scheduled to make his case next month before the Royalton Planning Commission.

Since last fall, Hall has acquired at least 1,200 acres of a planned 5,000 in hopes of building an intentional “NewVista” community based on the writings of Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet who was born in Sharon.

Among the quartet of towns, Strafford is the furthest along in its work, having secured a state grant to finish revisions to the town plan, which expired last month. Town plans contain guidelines for the development and management of land, public facilities and services and must be revised periodically.

Some of Strafford’s proposed changes are inspired by Hall’s plan, according to Planning Commission Chairman Steve Campbell. Those include prospective limits to density — Hall’s settlements would pack up to 20,000 people into a small portion of those 5,000 acres — and road access.

“I would say that the entire community is largely against the idea of this project,” he said in a telephone interview earlier this month.

The potential restrictions are strongest in Strafford’s land and forest conservation areas, which make up vast swaths of the most rural parts of town — including the southwest corner, which meets with the three other towns where Hall is buying land.

There, in an early draft of the Planning Commission’s proposal provided by the town clerk, the lot size required per housing unit in a new development could rise from 3 to 10 acres, and an additional proviso could block the improvement of any unpaved roads from hooking up to a large development.

But aside from blocking Hall’s plans, Campbell said, “The real question is, to what degree do we want to limit the options for the community?”

That was more or less the question that Selectboard members asked last month during an informal presentation of the Planning Commission’s ideas, according to board Chairman John Freitag.

“While a town plan can be adopted which addresses large-scale development in the most rural areas of a town, as well as providing guidance to where development of any type is most appropriate,” Freitag said in an email, “it is my understanding (that) the purpose of a town plan is not intended to be written for any specific development project.”

Campbell earlier this month said that some Selectboard members had raised concerns about unintended consequences stemming from the restrictions. The Planning Commission will return later with revisions, he said.

Even though Tunbridge’s plan doesn’t expire until 2018, and Royalton and Sharon aren’t required to have new plans until 2020, pressures stemming from NewVista are mounting on the four towns’ planners.

In an interview at one of his Sharon properties last month, Hall said he hoped to sway planners to align land-use regulations with his vision. Much of the economy of Hall’s self-contained cities would depend on so-called “VistaBizzes,” or small, technologically sophisticated businesses that he says could pop up and run anywhere.

Hall is scheduled to visit the Royalton Planning Commission on Oct. 4 to give a presentation and answer questions, and in the August interview, he said he planned to use the prospect of new jobs as an enticement to allow the kind of high-density settlement he requires.

“If you’re going to allow the sprawl,” he said, “I’m not coming. I won’t do VistaBizzes. So we’ve got to get in sync on our plan.”

The Royalton Planning Commission, on the other hand, has been discussing the prospect of instituting zoning — aside from flood-plain regulations, zoning exists only in Strafford among the four communities — as well as minor revisions to the town plan.

Chairwoman Beth Willhite said the commission hoped to use the meeting with Hall, as well as a subsequent public forum without him, to figure out how Royalton residents want to proceed in terms of regulations.

“We need to seriously look at (land) use and density,” she said, adding that in her view, “unfortunately, people are going to have to allow some kind of restrictions on their property so that they have some control — and I would love for that message to resonate with our populace.”

All the same, Willhite noted, past zoning proposals from the Planning Commission have fallen flat.

“I do not plan advancing any extreme efforts unless I have the public support to do so,” she said.

Meanwhile, Hall’s opponents are only growing more organized locally.

Beyond the campaign “Stop NewVistas,” which has held protests, launched a website and posted yard signs around the area, those opposed to the plan have now formed a nonprofit to support their mission: the Alliance for Vermont Communities.

The group’s website says it aims to promote “controlled development” in central Vermont towns, and offers the motto, “Save our Communities, Secure our Rural Futures, Say NO to NewVistas.”

Several Planning Commission members in Royalton, Strafford and Tunbridge also hold seats on the Alliance for Vermont Communities board of directors, according to the website.

Those opponents had mixed views about how best to address NewVista through land use.

John Echeverria, a Vermont Law School professor and member of the Strafford Planning Commission, said that the lot-size limits in his town’s land-use proposal were not entirely directed at stopping Hall.

“The proposal might have some effect on NewVista,” he said, “but I think the primary reason the change in density was laid out was to implement the state’s policy of concentrating development in urban and village centers, and trying to preserve the rural landscape.”

Instead, he said, “Insofar as the plan addresses NewVista, it’s by limiting the potential size of any new village centers in the town.”

A planned use development proposal in Strafford’s plan, he said, would “limit the possibility for new, dense concentrations of development outside the village centers” — such as the city Hall hopes to build.

Another director on the Alliance for Vermont Communities board, Ben Wolfe, is a former longtime member of the Tunbridge Planning Commission.

In an interview last week, Wolfe predicted that efforts to stop Hall solely based on regulation would fail. Instead, he said, residents need to articulate their own alternative visions for the future.

“I don’t think there’s a silver bullet — a standard we can put into place that he can’t work around,” he said.

Part of the reason for that, Wolfe said, is that the problems Hall diagnoses are real: Local communities are turning into energy-inefficient commuter economies, and municipal services are stretching to reach residential developments that sprawl out into rural areas, rather than cluster in village centers.

“If he can win people over while people here are divided over what kind of world we want to create, he wins,” Wolfe said.

In Tunbridge, the Planning Commission co-chairwoman, Ingrid Van Steamburg, also is a member of the Alliance for Vermont Communities board. She took a clear stance against NewVista in an interview earlier this month.

“The biggest thing for me is the scale,” she said. “It’s just inappropriate.”

She added later, speaking of Hall, “If this gentleman want(ed) to build a community that hosts a couple hundred people, that would be a whole different issue.”

Van Steamburg said Hall had inspired the Tunbridge Planning Commission to “start early, not late” in its town plan cycle.

The commission’s discussions, though having only barely begun, have included talk of density restrictions, she said, and zoning likely will be a topic as well.

Because the town plan revision process is still in its earliest stages outside of Strafford, and perhaps because of the intense feelings surrounding Hall’s project, some other planners are keeping details close to their chests for now.

In Sharon, for example, where the Planning Commission also is discussing changes to the town plan, former co-Chairman Peter Anderson declined to characterize the panel’s discussions.

“It’s all up for grabs,” he said. “That’s really all I can say.”

Ira Clark, another member in Sharon, allowed that the commission was reassessing the town plan “in light of the development pressures that NewVista poses” but said there was nothing yet in writing, nor anything ready to present to the Sharon Selectboard.

As for density measures, Clark warned of inadvertent consequences.

“That’s certainly something we might discuss,” he said of density. “We haven’t yet, but we’ve all agreed we don’t want to formulate regulations that would restrict the kind of development that people in Sharon want.”

As the four communities mull their land-use regulations, officials at the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Planning Commission will help guide the work and make sure it follows state law.

Peter Gregory, executive director of the commission, said he expected the presence of Hall and NewVista to be an influence in each of the towns’ planning.

“I think all of them are looking at ways to deal with intense, high-density development in their rural areas,” he said.

As for Hall’s offer of jobs, Gregory said, “We don’t respond that way.”

“We have statutory responsibilities,” he said — namely, to help constituent towns develop land-use plans that conform with their values and with state law.

In an April meeting with planners from the four towns, Two Rivers officials gave advice on crafting town plans, including what kinds of language (“shall not,” “must”) have a regulatory connotation and what other kinds (“discouraged”) are more visionary, and thus easier to ignore.

Two Rivers also helps formulate a regional plan, which, along with town plans, plays a role in the permitting process under Act 250, the Vermont law governing large-scale developments.

It is unclear whether a NewVista community would make it through Act 250, as there isn’t yet a concrete proposal to evaluate, but Two Rivers’ planners have said in the past that it would trigger a major review, thanks to its scale.

They also have mentioned that Hall’s plan would have an easier time if he broke it into stages.

Hall’s appearance before the Royalton Planning Commission is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Oct. 4 in the Royalton Academy Building.

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