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Can Four Upper Valley Towns Plan a Future Together?

2018-12-05

In early 2019, VCRD is bringing its Community Visit process to the 4 town region of Tunbridge, Strafford, Royalton and Sharon at the invitation of the 4 towns. The process brings people together to set direction for the future. Learn more about Community Visit here: https://www.vtrural.org/programs/Community-Visits.

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By Katie Jickling @katiej7D, as seen in Seven Days: https://www.sevendaysvt.com/vermont/can-four-upper-valley-towns-plan-a-f...

Highland Farm was a deal — at least when a Utah developer bought the 500 acres of forested hillside for a cool $1.4 million nearly three years ago. The Sharon property boasts two ponds, a horse barn, a caretaker's house and sweeping views of the surrounding valley.

It was the crown jewel of the 29 properties that David Hall purchased as part of his vision to create NewVistas, a 5,000-acre utopian community for 20,000 people in the towns of Sharon, Tunbridge, Strafford and Royalton.

Now Highland Farm is on the market for $2.9 million.

In June, Hall abandoned his plan to remake this corner of central Vermont and, soon after, began putting his land and buildings back up for sale.

So far, though, no one is buying.

In fact, Hall hasn't gotten a single offer for any of the five more-affordable properties he has listed since August, including 110 wooded acres in Tunbridge for $179,000, a modest house on 54 acres for $250,000 and a 60-acre lot for $160,000.

"I'm learning the hard facts of real estate in Vermont," Hall said in a recent interview.

What about the four rural towns that would have been irrevocably changed — perhaps destroyed — by his development? After uniting to fight Hall, the remaining neighbors face a new challenge: strengthening the communities they sought to protect.

"When a big proposal comes to town and the community opposes it, it often is a trigger for the community to think about its future on its own," said Paul Bruhn, executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont. "We hope that's what's happening."

In a part of the state characterized by widely scattered homes and small, struggling village centers, it's unclear whether a regional strategy can emerge.

By all accounts, the four towns once in Hall's sights have faced demographic and economic challenges. Three of the towns have seen marginal population growth in the last 20 years; the fourth, Tunbridge, has shrunk. Together, the towns have fewer than 7,000 residents.

Hill farms that once dotted the landscape and constituted the local economy have largely vanished. Today, the region's only major employer is Vermont Law School in South Royalton, which has recently reported financial difficulties and faculty layoffs. Most residents commute half an hour or more, or work remotely.

Not only is there no consensus on how to move forward in the wake of Hall's departure, but some residents said in interviews last month that they see little need to seek economic or population growth.

Rather than sparking a sense of urgency, the developer's decision to abandon NewVistas led to a collective "sigh of relief," said Peter Anderson, a member of the Sharon Planning Commission who also serves on the board of the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission.

His characterization of the community's sentiment? "That was really stupid and crazy, and let's get back to life as normal."

In 2015, Hall, a wealthy Mormon entrepreneur, began paying cash to snatch up parcels of land and buildings that had lingered on the market for as long as two years. He was drawn to these towns because the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith was born in Sharon, near the geographic center of the four-town region. The Vermont project, based on a document that Smith himself drafted in 1833, was to be one of many such communities around the globe.

click to enlarge [David Hall - COURTESY OF NEWVISTAS FOUNDATION]

Courtesy Of Newvistas Foundation
David Hall

Hall was unapologetic that his vision for a sustainable community would have destroyed the towns as they now exist. "They need to go the way of the world [and] never should have been there in the first place," he said. Small towns, he argued, require "all kinds of traffic, all kinds of old-fashioned farms." He described the latter as "the worst environmental disasters."

When Sharon librarian Nicole Antal discovered Hall's purchases in early 2016 and reported her findings on the online news site DailyUV, residents of all four communities mobilized around a common idea: opposition to the NewVistas plan. By then, Hall had already amassed 900 acres.

A South Royalton resident launched a Stop the "NewVista" Project Facebook page within hours; the online group quickly grew to 1,200 members. Within days, Tunbridge filmmaker Michael Sacca held a meeting at his house with like-minded opponents. That meeting led to the formation of an opposition group, the Alliance for Vermont Communities.

"People were afraid," Antal said. "It was an immediate response of, 'What can we do now to prevent this?'"

The project was out of scale for the town, said John Echeverria, a professor at Vermont Law School who serves on the board of the alliance. NewVistas was a "destructive, completely misguided" project, he said — and it seemed particularly threatening because it was actually feasible for Hall, a multimillionaire. "He appeared to have the financial resources to be able to impose his will on the community," Echeverria said.

By the end of 2016, Alliance for Vermont Communities had filed for federal recognition as a 501c3 nonprofit and raised about $88,000, Sacca said.

The following year, all four towns passed nonbinding resolutions against the project on Town Meeting Day. Alliance members persuaded the legislature to pass a measure asking Hall "to abandon the NewVistas development."

The group also took steps toward a different kind of future for the region. In June, it raised $293,000 to purchase 218 acres on the Sharon-Strafford border, Sacca said. The land will serve as a town forest with trails for recreation. That parcel, along with two others the alliance helped conserve nearby, created "almost 1,000 acres of essentially contiguous conserved land," said Echeverria. "I think it's fair to say that it would not have happened without David Hall."

The alliance successfully lobbied to get the four towns on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's watch list of the most endangered historic places in the country.

That June 26 announcement was the final straw for Hall. The designation would prove too significant a hurdle for development, he told Seven Days.

He spoke with Bruhn, the Preservation Trust director, that evening and said he was withdrawing from Vermont. He would sell his land for the same price he paid for it, plus expenses, Bruhn said Hall told him.

Hall initially hoped to sell all the lots as a package, maybe to "some big real estate firm," and said he'd be willing to let them go for as little as 80 percent of the purchase price. He got no offers.

Then he listed just a few of the properties in August, to prevent flooding the market. None has sold.

It's too early for Hall to worry, according to Kate Jarvis, a real estate broker at Four Seasons Sotheby's International Realty in Randolph. She said her agency had sold six properties in Tunbridge, Sharon and Royalton in the last six months. The average time on the market for those properties? 364 days.

Hall said he expects the sales process to take four or five years.

Sacca, one of the leading opponents to NewVistas, remains suspicious. He won't be satisfied until Hall's land is in the hands of new owners, he said. Perhaps, he suggested, Hall is merely biding his time until the opposition lets down its guard, when he could proceed with NewVistas. "We're watching," Sacca warned.

But for now, he's using that anger to try to forge greater unity among the towns.

Since June, the anti-NewVistas group has tried to reinvent itself, Sacca said. The group persuaded selectboards from the four towns to invite the Vermont Council on Rural Development to help them explore the region's future.

The council convenes such forums regularly but rarely works with more than one town, said Paul Costello, the organization's executive director.

As a result of NewVistas, "This is an area that's hungry to think together and lots will come of it," he predicted. The regional exploration will start in February.

The process, which will last more than a year, will include regular community forums in each of the four towns. Residents will brainstorm ideas to revitalize and reinvigorate the region and create task forces to accomplish those goals, Costello said. At similar forums in other towns, residents have considered starting a daycare or community center, or building a bike path.

Town and regional officials said it's too early to predict what results the towns could expect to see. That's up to the residents who participate, said Peter Gregory, executive director of the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission. Hall has helped residents overcome what can be the biggest challenge: "get[ting] people excited about self-determination," he said.

That's the first step to increased "engagement in meetings around planning and how to capitalize on the local resources," Gregory said.

"We're not trying to push the towns together and create some entity [they're] not," said Sacca. But "all the towns of Vermont all have common problems: All these taxes and land use and all the regular stuff. Why not put the four towns' heads together?" He's met with his planning counterparts in the other three burgs.

Ideally, he said, they'd like to bolster the working landscape through agriculture, outdoor recreation and conservation. Those conversations are in the early stages, he said, adding that he hoped Costello's forums could accelerate the planning process.

Change won't come overnight, warned Chris Wood, a Tunbridge resident and director of the South Royalton-based nonprofit Building a Local Economy.

Hall's project likely brought increased appreciation for the community, "but building local resilience and locally engaged, strong communities is a long process with a long arc," he said.

NewVistas may turn out to be comparable to the "Irene phenomenon," Wood said, referring to the 2011 tropical storm that devastated the region. "You put up the good fight and all go back to your regular lives," he said.

Antal said much the same thing. Hall represented a clear, imminent threat that galvanized the community in a way that planning for the future does not.

"It's easier to oppose NewVistas because it sounds vague and ridiculous," she said. "We all want jobs and we all want good schools, but I don't think people know how to get there."

While she supports the Alliance for Vermont Communities' efforts, she withdrew from involvement after Hall backed out, Antal acknowledged. She's not the only one, she guessed.

At First Branch Coffee by the South Royalton town green, owner and Tunbridge resident Andy Puchalik said he didn't expect the alliance to accomplish sweeping changes in town — and that was all right with him.

He moved to Tunbridge for the neighborly vibe and bucolic landscape, he said.

"It's nice to have a sense of community, a school, a fair, and not feel like people are coming in to buy up land," he said. "I don't really want much more than that, because it's a small town."

Last year, Puchalik participated in a fundraiser for the alliance in which mountain bikers traversed trails around Tunbridge to highlight the vistas that would have been lost with Hall's development. Puchalik, who also helps run Upper Pass Beer, sold his brews to raise money for the cause.

The third annual ride is already being organized for June, but this time, he said, "it's more just celebrating what we have."