Utah Businessman’s Proposed Development Has Residents Wary

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/27/2016 12:22:00 AM

Royalton — As news spread last week of a wealthy Utah engineer’s plans for an intentional community near the Joseph Smith Memorial, residents in the four surrounding towns have had little else on their mind.

“The last three days, it’s all people have been talking about up here,” Bennett Zapletal, owner of Crossroads Bar and Grill, said as he leaned over a table in his South Royalton establishment on Saturday.

For the past few months, David R. Hall, of Provo, Utah, has been on a buying spree, snapping up land in Royalton, Sharon, Strafford and Tunbridge. He has spent more than $3 million and acquired nearly 900 acres in hopes of building a self-contained community that could be home to as many as 20,000 in the hills near the Mormon prophet’s birthplace.

The idea, which Hall says will take decades to come to fruition, has sparked a wide range of emotions in the community: curiosity, bemusement, worry — and staunch opposition.

Within hours, multiple Facebook pages sprang up to organize against the project, one of them drawing 350 members in a day.

“No ‘New Zion’ in Royalton, Strafford, Sharon or Tunbridge,” one group proclaimed, combining the name of Hall’s nonprofit — The NewVista Foundation — with its inspiration — Smith, who once imagined a “Plat of Zion,” or a community planned on a 5,000-acre grid.

Zapletal, a Sharon resident, said he appreciated the idea behind Hall’s project: a nearly self-sufficient city, endlessly scalable and free of carbon-based pollution.

But the restaurant owner, and many others, are asking the same question: Why here?

“I think that the concept is great,” Zapletal said. “I just think this maybe isn’t the right place to do it.”

Even if the project never went forward, the land purchases alone might drive up local real-estate market, Zapletal noted. “Why not put it on 5,000 acres where there’s 5,000 acres for sale?”

Some White River Valley residents have toyed with the idea of blocking the development by enacting zoning codes in Royalton, Sharon or Tunbridge, which currently lack such regulations, aside from flood-prevention rules.

But George Ostler, a Norwich-based attorney who lives in Sharon, doubts that will happen in his town.

When Ostler served on the Sharon Selectboard in the early 2000s, he twice saw proposals defeated to enact a zoning ordinance. One year, the measure lost by only four votes, and so proponents brought it back — only to lose nearly 2-1, he said.

“The anti-zoning people really came out of the woodwork,” he said. “People were worried they weren’t going to be able to cut wood on their back lawn.”

Hall’s dreams face a more certain hurdle than local zoning: Vermont Act 250. The law regulates large developments in the state, reviewing their effect on such aspects as farming, transportation, aesthetics and stormwater.

Obtaining approval under the law can be arduous, especially if communities object to a given project. In February, Randolph developer Jesse “Sam” Sammis withdrew his proposal for a 172-acre mixed-use development along Exit 4 on Interstate 89 after a years-long battle with local opponents. (Sammis said he still plans to develop the land.)

If it ever went forward, Hall’s community “would undoubtedly be a major Act 250 undertaking,” Peter Gregory, executive director of the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission, said in an interview Saturday.

Gregory, whose commission helps review Act 250 applications in the region, said that Hall’s development likely would have more success in the approval process if it took place in phases, rather than all at once.

He also encouraged Hall to reach out to the commission, as well as to municipal-level authorities, to provide more information about the project.

In a separate interview Saturday, Hall said he planned to execute his idea in a environmentally friendly way that he hoped would be acceptable both to Vermonters and to Act 250 regulators.

“The neat thing about people in Vermont is they’re really environmentally conscious and want to protect the enviromment,” he said. “… I agree with the act. We need to do a much better job of taking care of the land and respecting it.”

Hall also said he planned to ask professors and students at Vermont Law School, in South Royalton, for help with that effort. He has approached landowners near the environmental law school, he said, in hopes of someday building a research center nearby.

On Thursday, VLS spokeswoman Maryellen Apelquist reached out to say there had been no coordination between the Utah developer and the school.

“To clarify, Vermont Law School has no plans to work with NewVista Foundation, nor is the VLS administration in talks with NewVista,” Apelquist wrote in an email.

There also has been no collaboration between Hall and the Mormon church, and the community, when finished, would be open to everyone, the developer says.

Spokespeople in Salt Lake City, Utah — where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is headquartered — did not respond to requests for comment last week.

Hall’s ultimate vision is grand — far more than a single planned community geared toward sustainability.

“It is not enough to build a few zero-emissions buildings if they are constructed within the same development model that requires the inhabitant to travel great distances to and from buildings — whether it is their home or place of work, or if the food consumed by the inhabitants is shipped and trucked many thousands of miles,” says a 26-page document detailing the NewVista concept. “Solutions for sustainability must be comprehensive” — meaning, as treatise goes on to explain, that they must be scalable across the globe.

It is practically a revamping of human society, transforming everything from food production to waste management to entire economic systems.

In the interview, Hall explained that NewVista developments would use a new model of capitalism, a reimagining of the current market system in which individuals contribute to a pool of capital available to the whole community.

“When individuals come to a NewVista community, they will deposit their intellectual assets and cash with the community capital fund ... receiving legal instruments acknowledging the deposits,” the document says. “If a participant owns real property, automobiles, or other large personal assets that cannot be used in the community, such assets must be sold and the proceeds must be deposited.”

(Hall added in the interview that community members could withdraw at any time.)

Year 2100 — a hypothetical: After taking root in Sharon, the NewVista model has swept the globe, transforming human society and eliminating carbon emissions, waste and predatory capitalism. In the end, would White River Valley residents be proud that it had all begun here?

Zapletal, for his part, thought not.

“(Would I) give myself a pat and say that I was there at the time and place that it happened?” he mused. “No — I don’t like the fact that, if you have an exorbitant amount of money, you can almost do what you want, and not take other people’s thoughts and feelings into account.”

Although Hall says he will do his best to sell the idea to Vermonters, he also plans to respect their wishes.

“If it can’t work anywhere, it shouldn’t work,” he said. “If the people of Vermont can’t come to really love the concept, it’s not going to be done. And that’s OK. I’m OK with that. Developers shouldn’t be able to force things on people.”

Hall, 69, acknowledges that realizing such a dream likely will take longer than he has left to live. His daughter, Barbara, is president of NewVista, and will carry on after he dies, he said.

But long before he breaks ground here, even before he files for the many permits he will need, Hall will have to accomplish something at once simple and daunting: He will have to acquire the land.

That will require cooperation from landowners such as Deb Fisk, whose horse farm over the ridge from the Joseph Smith Memorial abuts Hall’s largest purchase, a 450-acre farm that he scooped up for $1.35 million in October.

Fisk’s ties to the area are strong — she has lived there since 1986 and her family owns land all over the hill.

“I’m not the kind of person that would be bought out,” Fisk said, sitting astride a chestnut mount near her home on Saturday. “You don’t leave your family roots. You just don’t.”

“Most of us,” she added, speaking of herself and other nearby residents, “have no intention of selling.”

As an endurance rider, Fisk makes frequent use of the trails around her home. She said she wasn’t sure what to think of Hall’s plans, but expressed concern about their potential effect on local wildlife and the tranquility of the area.

In a recent conversation with Hall, Fisk, who lives at the end of a dirt lane that takes a long, winding path up the hill, made one simple request.

“When you put a two-lane road up here, just be sure you add a horse-way,” she remembers telling him.

The line earned her a laugh from Hall, Fisk said.

Regardless, she said, she couldn’t predict whether or not his plans would come to fruition.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “I think he’s got a dream and he’s ahead of his time.”

“But so were a lot of other people.”

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




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