VCRD is working with the 4-Town region of Royalton, Sharon, Strafford and Tunbridge through our Community Visit process to help them prioritize and implement projects for the future of the region. This story shares some of the history that led to the Selectboards in each town inviting our process.
By Howard Weiss-Tisman, as seen and heard on Vermont Public Radio: https://www.vpr.org/post/after-stopping-newvistas-development-4-upper-valley-towns-discuss-their-future#stream/0
Listen here (4:18 minutes): https://cpa.ds.npr.org/vpr/audio/2019/03/vpr-news-upper-valley-towns-20190319.mp3
It's been almost a year since Utah developer David Hall announced that he would be giving up on his plan to build a 5,000-acre "sustainable community," designed for up to 20,000 people, in the Upper Valley.
Now people from the four towns that pushed back on the development are trying to figure out what's next, working together to come up with regional solutions to many of the same issues other rural communities around Vermont face.
Hall largely abandoned his idea after residents in the towns of Tunbridge, Sharon, Royalton and Strafford successfully organized against the development plans.
"NewVista[s] allowed us to crystalize what we did want. You know, I mean we were opposed to something, but it’s like, OK let’s think positively about this,” said Michael Sacca, who helped form the local opposition group Alliance for Vermont Communities. “Forget about being negative all the time. Let’s build what we want to see in our communities.”
Sacca, who lives in Tunbridge, said Alliance for Vermont Communities included people from each of the four towns. He also said the selectboards of each town built relationships and trust while fighting Hall’s development.
Now everyone’s ready to move on and figure out what’s next.
“I think it’s going to work,” Sacca said. “It can only help to know your neighbors from … not only down the street but, you know, five miles away in the next town or something.”
The towns are working with the Vermont Council on Rural Development, and they’re holding four meetings (one in each of the towns) to discuss things like affordable housing, attracting young families, building economic vitality and education.
Paul Costello, executive director of the council, does this work all the time — but it’s usually in a single town, working directly with the one selectboard and planning commission. And so, he said, there’s some excitement and a little mystery about how this might turn out.
“You know, over 80 percent of the people in these four towns had some concerns about NewVistas coming in,” Costello said. “And it certainly catalyzed us to think about 'let’s bring these four towns together,' rather than just work with Tunbridge or just work with Royalton. And we don’t know where this is going to go. No one here does.”
More than 130 people attended the recent Tunbridge meeting, which included a free community dinner before the attendees broke into two groups.
During a discussion on ways to bring more young families to the area, a lot of familiar issues were brought up: poor cell service, not enough jobs, expensive housing. This corner of the Upper Valley is facing many of the same challenges the rest of Vermont is trying to address.
The organizers said these four meetings are mostly about getting to know each other and getting the four towns to talk about the strengths and challenges they share.
On her way out of the Tunbridge meeting, Lori Mikusa said she planned to attend the next two meetings.
“I think we all have very similar obstacles that we’re all dealing with,” said Mikusa, who's from Strafford. “And I think we’re going to solve some big community problems and move forward as a four-town group.”
There’s a meeting scheduled Thursday evening (March 21) in South Strafford, as well as one on March 28 in Sharon. After that, the four-town group will start talking about some projects they can work on to help strengthen the region.