‘Worn Down by the Drama,’ Developer Hall Says He’s Selling NewVistas Land

  • 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 file photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/27/2018 8:46:25 AM
Modified: 6/28/2018 12:37:09 PM

Sharon — Faced with stiffening opposition to his dream of founding a large sustainable community in the rural White River Valley, Utah engineer David Hall says it’s time for him to “give in and get out of Vermont.”

Hall announced on Wednesday morning that he now intends to sell the 1,500 acres that he began accumulating in 2015 with plans to establish a community near the birthplace of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith.

Activists who fought against Hall’s vision said they were cheered by the news — if a bit mystified.

“Who knows what other influences were behind his decision?” asked Jane Huppee, a resident of Button Hill Road in Tunbridge and board member of the Alliance for Vermont Communities, which formed to oppose Hall’s plans.

Even his supporters said they were unsure of why Hall had chosen this moment to abandon his plan, which came to light in early 2016 when an area librarian and journalist noticed the 900 acres of land transfers.

“I don’t know why this is the right time for him,” said Kevin Ellis, a former Strafford resident who worked as a paid consultant to Hall last year. Ellis said he talked to Hall to confirm the news after seeing an email from him.

In announcing the sudden reversal, Hall cited the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which earlier this week placed the towns of Royalton, Sharon, Strafford and Tunbridge on its “watch status,” a special designation that accompanies its annual list of the “11 Most Endangered Historic Places.” The trust warned that Hall’s development might permanently alter the “charming village centers and idyllic surrounding farms and forests” of the four towns.

On Tuesday, Hall said the opposition was based on misconceptions, and gave no indication that it would affect his plans.

But something had changed by early Wednesday morning.

“The recent designation of the area as a watch by national historic (preservationists) was a genius move by those who oppose my purchases,” Hall said via email. “I admit that I am worn down by the drama and have decided to give in and get out of Vermont.”

Hall’s long-term plan to bring 20,000 people to a 5,000-acre sustainable community — he’s putting $100 million of his own money into creating a global chain of high-tech, eco-friendly communities — drew strong opposition in Vermont.

Some neighbors in Provo, Utah, where he also is hoping to build a NewVistas prototype near Brigham Young University, also have raised concerns, but that project is not affected by this week’s announcement.

The Alliance for Vermont Communities began lobbying against the Vermont proposal with calls to legislators and bumper stickers, and the four towns near the Smith birthplace voted at Town Meeting in 2017 to oppose the proposal. A resolution in the Vermont House this year did the same.

Land for Sale

Hall said he hopes to sell the properties in the White River Valley as a group, in keeping with what he has said is his goal to prevent piecemeal development and chopping up of open land.

“I will do my best to sell the parcels in a responsible way ... hopefully as a total to another large investor or conservation group,” Hall said in the email.

Ellis said that Hall had indicated he would continue to maintain and rent out the properties for the duration of his ownership.

Susanne Pacilio, a Hanover real estate agent who regularly sells properties in the four towns, said that Hall abandoning the project was “fantastic news,” and that she hoped the four towns would develop zoning regulations to help protect against large-scale development in the future. Only Strafford currently has zoning in place.

Even if Hall were to dump the parcels individually on the open market, Pacilio said she didn’t think it would do much to drive down local land prices.

“These parcels of land were on the market at some point over the last couple of years,” she said. “I think it’s just going to take a long time to sell them.”

Land conservationists, some of whom have had an adversarial relationship with Hall over the past couple of years, were tantalized by the new possibility that his land might fall under their control.

Bob Linck, the central Vermont director of the Vermont Land Trust, said it’s too early to tell whether his group might move to acquire Hall’s land.

“We have been reeling, a little bit, from the surprise,” he said.

But Linck didn’t dismiss the idea out of hand.

“If it is true that he’s selling and is thinking about offering it in one large block, I think we would certainly confer with others to see if that’s a realistic possibility,” he said. “We want to see how they might fit into the bigger picture of the towns’ futures, is what my instinct is.”

Linck said the Vermont Land Trust, which has conserved a total 600,000 acres in the state, does sometimes purchase large tracts, but that it would be unusual to take on so much land when it is fragmented and spread across four towns.

The exact value of the land is unknown — about two years ago, Hall said he’d spent $4.6 million on 1,200 acres, and officials at the Alliance for Vermont Communities put the figure at more than $6 million.

Jeanie McIntyre, executive director of Upper Valley Land Trust, said Hall’s change in course represents an “exciting and complicated” opportunity” for the group, which recently conserved the Manning Farm, a 382-acre parcel in Strafford that abuts some of Hall’s land.

McIntyre said that the UVLT and Hall shared a common goal of preventing the fragmentation of land, and that Hall contributed financially to the conservation of the Manning Farm.

McIntyre and Hall on Wednesday “had a positive and encouraging conversation” about the disposition of the land, McIntyre said.

Paul Bruhn, executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, said he’d spoken with Hall by phone on Tuesday evening, and that he expected a series of conversations to take place about the future of the land.

“We had a good conversation,” he said. “We’re going to need a lot more discussion with him to figure out exactly what all of this means, and how we’ll all be able to respond.”

Though the Preservation Trust has been staunchly opposed to Hall’s plans, Bruhn said the debate has been polite, which he said will allow for a constructive collaboration moving forward.

“I know David is disappointed,” he said. “He’s a very civil guy, and hopefully, we are too.”

It’s also unclear whether Hall will face any legal obstacles in selling the land.

In March, Vermont Law School Professor John Echeverria, who is active with the Alliance group, alleged to a Vermont House committee that land transfers from NewVistas Foundation to a for-profit company, Windsorange LLC, violated charitable finance laws, a claim that Hall disputes.

On Wednesday, Echeverria said the matter will have to be cleared up before titles can be transferred to new owners.

“Before attempting to sell the properties, David Hall probably needs to resolve the serious issues the Alliance has brought to the attention of the attorney general,” he said.

Visions of Vermont

Driving Hall — a philanthropist with deep pockets and an ambitious environmental agenda — out of Vermont is unwise, Ellis said.

“It’s hard to explain why there was such anger toward someone who wants to bring tens of millions of dollars to bear on communities, that would create jobs, cluster people together in environmentally sustainable living quarters in net-zero buildings, and leave all the wilderness to do carbon sequestration,” Ellis said. “This is the ultimate sustainable community that Vermont environmentalists have been asking for since Act 250,” Vermont’s land development law that was passed in 1970.

But people like Huppee said they were turned off by the massive scale and scope of Hall’s vision, as well as the fact that he had begun quietly buying up properties, with a unilateral plan already firmly in mind.

“I believe it would have a hugely negative impact for the region,” Huppee said. “Not only for the immediate area, but for the larger region. It would be devastating to the natural resources of the region and the wildlife. It would cause infrastructure improvements that would be out of scale for our rural setting.”

Huppee said that the Alliance won’t go away.

“I’m pleased that phase one is over, and now we’re going to go on to phase two,” she said, explaining that the group planned to harness the grassroots energy that fueled the fight against NewVistas.

“We’re working to help facilitate a forum for the four towns to get together and talk about the future of this area,” she said. “How can we be productive in having appropriate growth for this area, and attracting folks to come enjoy the character of our area and also have it be economically sustainable.”

Ellis said it will take more than forums to enact the kind of radical change that is needed to ameliorate worrisome trends of an aging population, and skyrocketing opiate addiction rates.

“We can vision out our ears for 20 years but it’s time to do something,” he said. “These opponents who are beating their chest in victory, where are their children going to work?”

National Trust President Stephanie Meeks said the group was “relieved” to hear the news, but credited its local partners with the victory.

“While communities need to adapt and grow over time to achieve economic growth, irreparably harming historic character is almost always a step in the wrong direction,” Meeks said. “We will continue observing the area in the coming weeks and months, and we hope the future of these land parcels is in keeping with the historic character, community interests, and conservation spirit of these towns and Vermont as a whole.”

In his email, Hall criticized the state’s residents as being too closed-minded to innovation.

“Vermont is one tough place to have ideas and get anything new going!” he said. “Don’t try any dreaming in Vermont!”

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

June 2016.
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