Historic Preservation Nonprofit Warns Against Vt.’s NewVistas

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/26/2018 11:48:20 PM
Modified: 6/28/2018 12:04:07 PM

Sharon — A wealthy Utah engineer’s plans to establish a populous sustainable community in rural Vermont has drawn national opposition from historical preservationists, who warn that the proposal puts four “charming village centers” in the White River Valley at risk.

NewVistas Foundation, a nonprofit founded by David Hall, has purchased roughly 1,500 acres of land in Royalton, Sharon, Strafford and Tunbridge to create what he says will be an eco-friendly community that would cluster 20,000 people into a 1.2-square-mile grid surrounded by farmland and wilderness.

On Tuesday, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a private nonprofit, joined a growing chorus of NewVistas opponents when it included the four towns as being on “watch status,” a special designation that accompanies its annual list of the “11 Most Endangered Historic Places.”

Hall said on Tuesday that opposition members are misconstruing his plan, which he said is consistent with goals of historic preservation and environmental conservation.

“The enemy, from my point of view, is the continued trend toward subdivision. I’m totally behind preserving existing views and existing lifestyle(s),” Hall said in an interview on Tuesday. “This is not development. This is not McDonald’s.”

This marks the third time since 1988, when the National Trust first published its list, that it has included an additional watch status site, which the trust defines as meaning “that a specific threat to a historic site appears to be growing, but can be avoided or controlled through collaboration and innovation.”

Without naming NewVistas, the National Trust said Hall’s proposal posed a risk to the heritage of the four communities.

“The charming village centers and idyllic surrounding farms and forests in four historic towns would be permanently altered by a development proposal calling for construction of a new planned community in this rural part of Vermont,” according to the National Trust.

But Hall said his intent is to preserve those village centers, not ruin them.

“The design is flexible enough that it can work around historic areas,” he said, adding that he would like to actively help restoration efforts that use sustainable materials and construction methods. “Primarily what it would be replacing is the rural sprawl. What you’d see go is these large rural places with a small home on it. It’s replacing those, but those aren’t historic.”

The watch status designation was cheered in a public statement released on Tuesday by local opponents to NewVistas, including the Vermont Natural Resources Council, the Alliance for Vermont Communities and the Preservation Trust of Vermont.

The listing “eliminates any doubt that the NewVistas development proposal poses a significant threat, not only to these four small rural communities, but to the surrounding region as well,” said Brian Shupe, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council.

The heads of the other two groups said the recognition is “critical to raising public awareness across the state, region, and nation” and that they hoped the recognition would convince Hall that his idea “is a bad one.”

Being put in the national spotlight is the latest bit of unwelcome news for NewVistas.

In March, a Vermont Law School professor accused the organization of violating state laws governing charitable organizations by transferring some of its land holdings to a for-profit corporate entity. The following month, the Vermont House passed a resolution opposing the development. Earlier this month, the Alliance for Vermont Communities announced that it bought a 218-acre wooded parcel that straddles Sharon and Strafford to conserve it and to keep it away from Hall, who had expressed interest in it.

Soon after the land purchase was announced, Hall said he was in favor of the property being protected through a conservation easement.

“My goal is to reverse the trend towards breaking up parcels for more housing estates and so I am in full agreement and very happy that this parcel will be preserved,” he said in an email to the Valley News. “The NewVistas concept is based around small clustered villages surrounded by farming and wilderness, and so this purchase by the community helps my overall efforts.”

On Tuesday, he said much the same.

“All I’m doing is conserving land for the possibility,” Hall said. “If somebody comes in and conserves it for me, great. I’ve been real thankful that some people have stepped up and are starting to conserve land. Oddly enough, it’s to oppose me.”

It’s unclear whether, or how, the national recognition might affect NewVista’s prospects.

In announcing the list, Preservation Trust President Stephanie Meeks boasted that, of the 300 places that have been identified on the list over the years, fewer than 5 percent have been lost, in part because the national spotlight “galvanized Americans to help local communities save them.”

The only other site in New England that made the list was in Bridgeport, Conn., where the neighboring Mary and Eliza Freeman Houses, notable as the state’s oldest examples of houses built by African-Americans, are vacant and rapidly deteriorating.

Other sites on the list include hurricane-ravaged historic sites in Puerto Rico; a dock area in Annapolis, Md., threatened by a rezoning proposal; and Route 66, a famous scenic roadway that traverses several Western states, and which is the subject of preservation legislation that the trust hopes will be approved by the U.S. Senate and signed by the president this year.

Hall’s planned community is based on an idea by the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, who was born in Vermont and who sketched a rudimentary design after seeing a spiritual vision of the community in 1830.

Hall, who is in his 70s, says he does not expect to see the vision realized in his lifetime, but expects the foundation, to which he has given more than $100 million, to carry it through to completion, perhaps not until 100 years or more have passed. It is one of several such communities that Hall hopes to create to serve as models of environmental sustainability.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

Update: On Wednesday morning, David Hall said he now plans to abandon his vision for a NewVistas community in Vermont, citing the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “watch status” designation.

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