‘A Powerful Impediment to the NewVistas Development’: Conservation Plan in Place for Strafford Farm

Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, December 22, 2017

Strafford — Conservationists, landowners and farmers are teaming up to preserve a 382-acre property off Robinson Road in a move that they say could hamper a controversial development planned by a Utah magnate.

In an agreement brokered by the Upper Valley Land Trust and the Alliance for Vermont Communities, the family that owns the Manning Farm will transfer the property to the owners of nearby Strafford Organic Creamery, who will continue to use the land for cattle grazing under a conservation easement held by the land trust.

“It’s just a really spectacular piece of property and a very, very scenic and iconic landscape,” Jeanie McIntyre, executive director of Upper Valley Land Trust, said on Friday. “It’s a beautiful valley with a lot of open fields along a beautiful rural road in Strafford.”

The land also happens to adjoin properties owned by David Hall, a wealthy Utah engineer who has bought at least 1,500 acres around Strafford, Royalton, Sharon and Tunbridge in hopes of someday building a self-sustaining community of thousands in the Vermont hills.

McIntyre said her group had eyed the land long before Hall’s arrival, dating to when Roscoe and Ruth Manning, who bought the plot around 1960, still were alive.

But the next generation of the Manning family, along with members of the Alliance for Vermont Communities — a group founded to oppose NewVistas — did express an interest in hampering his plans.

“A lot of our land abuts the land that David Hall has purchased,” Carol Boles, the family member most closely involved in the deal, said over the phone. “We were trying to avoid any more land being available for him.”

“This is a twofer,” John Echeverria, an Alliance board member, said in a separate interview. “It’s a wonderful farmland and open-space conservation project, and it’s also a powerful impediment to the NewVistas development.”

Hall did not appear fazed.

“That would be great!” he said in an email on Friday. “Conserving land from further subdivision is totally in line with my objectives.”

Hall said that part of his goal in creating a high-density settlement is to reduce “rural sprawl,” or the diffusion of housing across wide areas, which he believes leads to higher transportation costs and a drain on public services.

“Small parcels means another road, another home, and even more sprawl,” he said over the phone later that day.

The conservation arrangement may not be out of line with the NewVistas model, either. Sample development plans available on Hall’s website show that settlements likely would include a small core residential area surrounded by largely undeveloped land.

“Hopefully they can find more that are willing to do this,” Hall said in his email.

In the phone call, Hall said that he had purchased even more land in the last few weeks: a roughly 500-acre parcel abutting his 450-acre property atop the hill that Clifford Farm Road climbs in Sharon.

That would put his total acreage at 2,000, about 40 percent of the 5,000 acres that he says a NewVistas development would require.

The Upper Valley Land Trust is leading a fundraising push to gather the final $15,000 needed to finance the $300,000 easement on the Manning property. The easement would prevent residential or commercial development on the property beyond its current limited agricultural use.

The Alliance for Vermont Communities has offered a $10,000 matching gift toward the goal, and if the drive is successful, the transfer will occur within a few weeks, McIntyre said in a December letter to supporters of the land trust.

Amy Huyffer and Earl Ransom, owners of Strafford Organic Creamery, primarily located at nearby Rockbottom Farm in Strafford, will become the owners of the 382-acre parcel, which Boles said was assessed at $587,000.

Speaking over the phone Friday, Ransom said he expected to pay about half the list price to acquire the land, with UVLT buying the property’s development rights, a significant portion of its value.

Ransom said he had admired the land and the well-kept farm that occupied it since Roscoe Manning was there. He said he viewed the property as a long-term investment, one that would allow him to consolidate some of his business interests but also would require years of hard work to turn a profit.

“It’s a little daunting, I’m not going to be shy about that,” he said. “It’s a lot to take on, but I think it’s worth it.”

Officials from the Upper Valley Trail Alliance also are involved — they plan to help install a 3.5-mile trail through the woods and roads surrounding the farm.

“It’ll be a nice meander in the woods,” Executive Director Russell Hirschler said of the trail, which he said would likely be too narrow for motorized use.

Boles, meanwhile, waxed wistful as she prepared to hand over the land on which she was raised, including the farmhouse where she lived as a child, and the brick schoolhouse where she and her husband resided as newlyweds. But she added that the terms of the easement, which binds Upper Valley Land Trust in perpetuity to prevent large-scale development, would preserve the things she loved about her birthright.

“It’s been around a long time, and it’s going to stay that way,” she said. “That’s the best part — is that it’s going to remain farmland.”

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