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Communities that rallied against NewVistas continue dialogue about growth

  • A customer walks into the Sharon Trading Post in Sharon, Vt., on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019. The towns of Tunbridge, Strafford, Royalton, and Sharon are holding a series of meetings to address the aftermath of the failed NewVista development. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Children play on the hill at Chapman Family Farm in Tunbridge, Vt., on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019. The towns of Tunbridge, Strafford, Sharon, and Royalton are holding a series of meetings to address the aftermath of the failed NewVista development. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, February 03, 2019

SOUTH ROYALTON — By day, Rob McShinsky oversees information-technology systems at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

By night and by weekend, the 45-year-old engineer rides herd on his four children’s many extracurricular activities in and around his, and their, native White River valley.

And somehow, he hopes to find time in the coming weeks to offer his two-cents worth during at least one of the community “4-Town Future” forums that the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD) is co-hosting in Royalton, Sharon, Tunbridge and Strafford.

“I know I’m one of the lucky ones,” McShinsky, a 1992 graduate of South Royalton High School, said on Sunday afternoon. “I landed at a great spot. I wanted to come back after college and someday bring kids up in this kind of area, and I’ve been able to do it.

“But overall the opportunities here are not great. There’s not a lot of industry other than tourism and service jobs. Even in the trades, we don’t have as many farms as we used to, and with our population base, you can only have so many plumbers and electri cians if the population isn’t growing, except for people retiring here.. … I love the feel of Vermont as it is, but I don’t disagree with some development.”

Enough residents and officials of Royalton, Sharon, Tunbridge and Strafford disagreed, early and often, with the so-called NewVistas development in 2017 and 2018 for Utah engineer David Hall to abandon, last summer, his plan to spread a “sustainable community” housing up to 20,000 people on the hundreds of acres he’d been buying up near the Mormon church’s Joseph Smith Memorial. In the aftermath of the campaign to stop NewVistas, leaders in the towns started talking about working together to figure out what kind of growth they, and the general public, believe would work here.

“I think the way people rallied together gestated some energy in the communities,” development council Executive Director Paul Costello said last week. “It’s kind of like you oppose something, then the other shoe drops and you start thinking, ‘What are we for?’ ”

The forums, each of which begins with a free community dinner between 6 and 7 p.m., kick off on Feb. 21 at the White River Valley High School in South Royalton. Subsequent gatherings are set for March 14 at Tunbridge Central School, March 21 at Barrett Memorial Hall in South Strafford and March 28 at Sharon Elementary School.

“We’re trying to figure out what’s important to people,” Sharon selectman Kevin Gish, a part-time math teacher and coach at The Sharon Academy, said on Sunday. “The process has the potential to be very valuable, to steer our towns for the next several years, in a direction people want to do. We don’t know what that direction is yet.”

Topics at the first gathering, in South Royalton, will focus on generating and maintaining economic and cultural vitality, and promoting affordable housing for working families and living arrangements for the aging population. That senior demographic is close to the heart of Royalton Selectwoman Sandy Conrad, who has been working in elder services since moving to Vermont in 1998. After working with agencies helping seniors live at home, then overseeing care management at Gifford Memorial Hospital in Randolph, she is now executive director of the Village at White River Junction.

“If we bring more industry in,” Conrad said, “that could help lower the property-tax burden for the seniors.”

One option that Conrad hopes that people at the first forum consider is creating a for-profit assisted-living community that would house seniors citizens from the surrounding towns and boost the tax base. With a valuation of $14 million, she said, The Village at White River Junction pays $386,000 in property taxes to Hartford.

The focus at the Tunbridge forum will be on ways to attract and support younger people and families, and on promoting agriculture and forestry in the four towns. The March 21 gathering, in South Strafford, will be devoted to partnerships among towns on infrastructure and communications, and to the balancing of natural-resource protection with opening and preserving land for recreation.

And on March 28, topics will include education — in the midst of consolidation of school districts around Vermont, including the White River Valley — and poverty.

Tunbridge native Gary Mullen, a 58-year-old dairy farmer and selectman who also serves on the town planning commission, hopes that residents of all ages and stripes turn out and speak up.

“If you look at the big picture in our town and the four towns, it’s not one thing,” Mullen said. “I’m naturally interested in agriculture, but I also can get in my own little world and talk to a lot of people.

“It’ll be good to know what people might want.”

Rob McShinsky has some suggestions from which his 15-year-old daughter, his 13-year-old son and his 7-year-old twin boys might benefit.

“There’s only so many spots like mine in technology,” he said. “I would love to see some sort of development other than the end of the state, around Burlington, or across the state line, something that would bring in young people and excite the ones here. It’s nice to have niche industries, but who’s our next Dartmouth-Hitchcock-size employer or however-many-thousands?

“I have lots invested in having my kids nearby in the years to come.”

To learn more about Our 4-Town Future, email jenna@vtrural.org or call 802-225-6091 or visit vtrural.org.