Editorial: Vermont’s Brief NewVistas Era Ends

  • 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 — James M. Patterson

Published: 6/30/2018 10:10:08 PM
Modified: 6/30/2018 10:10:10 PM

It looks like the Upper Valley won’t have David Hall to kick around anymore. The wealthy Utah engineer whose proposed NewVistas development sparked ferocious opposition now says he has given up on his plans and is selling the many properties he purchased in the four-town area surrounding the birthplace of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith.

Hall seems like a perfectly nice guy, and he has almost always been available to answer questions. We also believe he is well-intentioned and, in the grand scheme of things, he’s got a point: Our population is growing, our resources are finite, our climate is changing and we need to have a serious discussion about how we’re going to live in the future. But we can’t say we’re sorry to see his proposal withdrawn.

That’s because, while the NewVistas project as envisioned by Hall would not have been realized for 50 or even 100 years, he has spent nearly three years and some $7 million acquiring more than 20 parcels totaling 1,500 to 2,000 acres in the towns of Royalton, Sharon, Strafford and Tunbridge. That surge of activity has created uncertainty for current property owners in those towns, and also for those who may have been considering buying a home there. We also have serious concerns about the propriety of the transfer of real estate from Hall’s nonprofit NewVistas Foundation, which had been buying the properties, to his for-profit company, Windsorange LLC.

Hall has faced opposition on multiple fronts ever since his plans for a 5,000-acre, 20,000-resident sustainable community in the White River Valley came to light in early 2016. It wasn’t long before the “Say No to NewVistas” lawn signs popped up. At Town Meeting in 2017, an overwhelming majority of voters in Royalton, Sharon, Strafford and Tunbridge came out against the project. A group was formed to fight NewVistas, the Alliance for Vermont Communities, and some of its members testified in Montpelier against Hall’s plans. In April, the Vermont House passed a resolution calling on Hall to discontinue the project. Then, on Tuesday, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the four towns on what it calls “watch status,” meaning it has identified a specific threat to a place with historic significance.

There is some truth to the notion that Vermonters can be too quick to reject anything that smacks of change, and too slow to cast a critical eye on their own lifestyles. Then again, their instinct to mistrust any proposal that puts too much power in one person’s hands — Hall’s plans specified nearly every detail of the NewVistas project, from the street design to the building materials to the toilets — is right on target.

In the end, it was all too much for Hall. “I admit that I am worn down by the drama and have decided to give in and get out of Vermont,” he told the Valley News in an email on Wednesday.

So, big sigh of relief, right? Maybe. But the real challenge remains: Will Vermont live up to its reputation as a “green” state, or will it continue, for example, to fragment its forests with single-family homes whose occupants drive 30 or 40 miles to work each day? Unfortunately, the existential threat many saw in the NewVistas project created an atmosphere in which the larger questions couldn’t get an airing.

A better approach might have looked something like this:

Instead of first dispatching surrogates to quietly buy up properties, Hall could have launched a statewide campaign to introduce himself and his vision to Vermonters (the NewVistas project actually called for a network of sustainable communities — 50 or more all over Vermont housing a million or more people; Hall has a similar project underway in Provo, Utah.)

He could have made a concerted effort to engage with the people, organizations and institutions already working in Vermont on many of the issues NewVistas intended to address: sustainability, carbon emissions and climate change, living and working locally, etc. Two obvious Upper Valley examples, both in South Royalton, are Vermont Law School, widely regarded as the nation’s top school for environmental law, and the nonprofit group Building A Local Economy, known as BALE.

Then he could have used some of his prodigious wealth — he was ready, he had said, to spend a quarter of a billion dollars on NewVistas — to support those institutions, along with the charities and nonprofit organizations whose missions align with his.

In other words, had Hall invested first in trying to win the hearts and minds of Vermonters, rather than in acquiring their properties, he may have received the fair hearing his supporters believe he was denied.

Perhaps no amount of campaigning was going to persuade Vermonters to go along with Hall’s vision. What it could have done, however, is promote an extended discussion about the future of Vermont, which is likely to be a very different place in 50 or 100 years.

Hall may have abandoned his vision, but we’ll still need solutions for the problems his vision was trying to address.

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