White River Valley Towns Vote Against NewVistas Project

  • Roz Finn, right, points with her microphone to Libby Moyer, center, so she can be called on by Moderator Robert Bauer, not pictured, in the debate over the NewVistas development during Strafford Town Meeting in Strafford, Vt.,Tuesday, March 7, 2017. Strafford voters passed an article in opposition to the development envisioned by Utah resident David Hall as a self-sustaining city of 20,000 people within the boundaries of four Upper Valley towns. (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 Staff Writer
Published: 3/7/2017 2:00:07 PM
Modified: 3/8/2017 12:55:17 AM

Sharon — Voters here and in three other towns where a Utah engineer wants to build a planned community of thousands known as “NewVistas” declared their opposition to his vision at Town Meeting on Tuesday.

Residents of Royalton, Sharon, Strafford and Tunbridge overwhelmingly approved resolutions that asked “Shall the voters of the Town of ... oppose the NewVistas development?”

For more than a year, David Hall, of Provo, Utah, has been buying up land on which to build a self-sustaining community of 20,000 on a 5,000-acre grid near the birthplace of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church.

Although Hall, who has purchased more than 1,400 acres in the White River valley, has said the idea likely won’t be accomplished in his lifetime, voters in all four of the towns where he plans his settlement sent a clear message on Tuesday: They want their opposition known now.

“We have used these hills for hunting, fishing, a little bit of everything, and if David Hall comes in and does what he thinks he wants to do, I’m sure we’re not going to have a Tunbridge, or Sharon or Strafford or South Royalton anymore,” Ted Hoyt, an eighth-generation farmer, said at Tunbridge Town Meeting.

“We grew our children in this community,” Carol Flint said at Sharon Town Meeting. “We’re proud of it ... and we’d like to see it stay the way it is.”

Flint and others in Sharon said the vote was intended in part to send a message to state officials that residents opposed NewVistas and wanted Vermont representatives to act.

“It’s time for our state officials to pay attention to this because it’s huge,” she said. “Think about half the population of Burlington living on our hill here.”

Hall said following Tuesday’s votes that his project remained far from realization and that he would continue to acquire the land needed, regardless of current residents’ concerns.

“Long term we expect to continue to be successful in our objective to consolidate and preserve the land in the communities where we are purchasing,” he said in an email. “So far we are having greater success in purchasing land than we planned on. We don’t and won’t expect local landowners to agree with our long-term plans as that would be an unreasonable expectation.”

State Reps. Tim Briglin and Jim Masland, Democrats from Thetford, were present at the Sharon meeting and expressed opposition to NewVistas in response to a resident’s question.

Masland, noting that new entrants to a theoretical NewVistas community must surrender outside assets to a group fund, according to documents on the group’s website, called the idea “completely antithetical” to Vermont values.

Briglin said he wasn’t a supporter and encouraged those listening to implement their visions for their community by altering their town plans, which are periodically updated documents outlining municipalities’ priorities for land use and development.

At the beginning of the Royalton meeting, Selectboard member Peggy Ainsworth spoke on behalf of her husband, state Rep. David Ainsworth, R-Royalton. She said that Ainsworth is working to craft a bill that would find a statewide solution to developments like NewVistas.

Richard Wilson, who identified himself at the Sharon meeting as a former bishop of the South Royalton ward of the Mormon church, expressed concern that some people saw Hall, who is also Mormon, as being affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“I want you to know that (Hall) doesn’t have any backing from the Mormon church,” Wilson said, noting that last year church officials said they did not support Hall’s plan. It was a rare thing for the church to comment on a private individual’s actions, Wilson said.

Wilson said he also opposed the development, but added that “whether the town says yes or no is neither here nor there,” given that existing statute and regulations could have a more direct effect on Hall.

Later, after another resident expressed concern that Hall’s settlement would be a “Mormon” community and that its occupants would “ostracize” townspeople, Wilson’s wife, Michelle, stood up to ask for tolerance.

“This is what is disturbing, as a member of that faith, that some of you have protested using that faith,” she said. “It’s not acceptable to me to use my religion in this. This is two separate issues.”

Michelle Wilson, who called Hall a “lunatic” and said she did not support his idea, said NewVistas was primarily a property rights issue and counseled townspeople to stop selling land to him if they opposed him.

She also advised residents to join their local boards and change existing regulations, rather than vote on a generalized statement of opposition. “I just think it’s not the right way.”

Sharon approved the resolution by ballot vote, 100-16.

Royalton residents also voted by paper ballot, passing an anti-NewVistas article, 123-16.

Suzanne Long, a farmer in Royalton, said that community members have been working together to come up with a solution for those property owners who are looking to sell, but would rather not sell to David Hall.

Long serves as a board member of the Alliance for Vermont Communities, a group organized in response to NewVistas that helped conceive of the Town Meeting resolutions.

“Maybe ... the silver lining of this is that it will get us to start thinking creatively so people who have land here can afford to stay here,” she said.

Following some debate, voters in Strafford overwhelmingly approved the article by voice vote. Only a handful of “nays” were heard from the floor.

“We are not just talking about 20,000 people, we are talking about the entire destruction of our ecosystem,” Strafford resident Roz Finn said from the floor. “From the ants all the way up. I can’t believe we would want to do something like that.”

Tunbridge voters approved their article by an even wider balloted margin, 165-4, after a roughly 20-minute debate where nearly every speaker opposed NewVistas.

In Tunbridge, brochures from the Alliance for Vermont Communities had been placed on chairs inside Town Meeting on Tuesday. The fliers urged residents to “vote YES to oppose NewVistas on Town Meeting Day.”

“It happens,” Euclid Farnham, Tunbridge’s moderator, said in a telephone interview afterward. “Every seat did have one; I can’t deny that.”

Farnham said brochures with information on local voting matters often appeared at Town Meeting in Tunbridge, but added that “nobody’s allowed” to bring in materials relating to state or national issues.

Vermont election law, specifically 17 V.S.A. § 2508, says that, “Within the building containing a polling place, no campaign literature, stickers, buttons, name stamps, information on write-in candidates, or other political materials are displayed, placed, handed out, or allowed to remain.”

Will Senning, director of elections at the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office, said the placement of the brochures on chairs did not appear to comply with the statute.

“If you’re telling me (that) the material there was specifically for or against an article on the warning, no, it’s not (in compliance),” Senning said. “That’s clearly prohibited conduct within the polling place.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or at 603-727-3242. Staff writers Tim Camerato, Jordan Cuddemi and Nora Doyle-Burr contributed to this report.

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