Mormon mogul eyes small-town Vermont for vast, futuristic development
TUNBRIDGE, Vt. — When Jane Huppee steps outside her hilltop home, she sees quintessential Vermont. Steep ridges. A winding dirt road. Soaring trees that blanket the Green Mountains as far as the eye can see.
It’s enough to frighten her.
Huppee’s 43 bucolic acres are hemmed in on three sides by land being stockpiled for a futuristic utopia, the fanciful brainchild of a Utah businessman who wants to transform this slice of small-town New England into a vast, new community near the birthplace of the founder of the Mormon church.
The project is called NewVistas, and its goal is to create a fully sustainable megalopolis of 1 million people — nearly twice the state’s current population — clustered together in the hills and valleys near here, about 30 miles south of Montpelier.
The prospect of a huge new city, however far-fetched, has brought a sense of foreboding to Tunbridge and three other quiet communities near the scenic White River.
“I never envisioned anything like this,” said Huppee, a seventh-generation Vermonter. “It could change the entire character of the region.”
At first, many residents dismissed the grandiose plan as an impossible delusion. But now they are watching with increased wariness as David Hall, an ultra-wealthy engineer, has snatched up farm after farm.
Hall, 70, acknowledges that the plan seems outlandish, and that it could take a century to complete. But he insists he has the will and resources to lay the groundwork for his children to carry on.
“This will be the best, greenest system out there, and it has roots to my faith,” said Hall, who added that his plan builds on the work of Joseph Smith, the Mormon founder born in 1805 in the neighboring town of Sharon.
Hall already has bought 1,800 acres for $6 million near and adjacent to Smith’s birthplace, where the scant remnants of his childhood home are marked by a marble obelisk maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the official name of the Mormon church. Hall plans to buy many more.
A former Mormon bishop, Hall said he was inspired by the Plat of Zion, Smith’s 1833 blueprint for a self-sufficient community in which residents would lead deeply interconnected lives. The Mormon church opposes his project, and many residents view it as a threat to their way of life. But Hall, whose family fortune grew out of his father’s invention of synthetic diamonds, promotes it as a social and economic savior for the state’s economy.
“Vermont is dying, and anybody who looks at it realistically knows that,” Hall said in a lengthy phone interview. “The only thing saving Vermont is that it’s surrounded by wealth.”
Hall has not filed formal plans with state or local authorities, and he might not do so for decades — if at all. But his vision has taken form on the drawing board, and Hall said he will spare no expense to realize it.
NewVistas, in his imagining, would gradually grow into a cluster of 50 “villages,” each with as many as 20,000 residents. They would live in tiny units — about 200 square feet per person — which would allow most of the acreage to be preserved as wilderness.
Hall said the first village would likely be located among the towns of Tunbridge, Strafford, Royalton, and Sharon, which now have a combined population of 6,700. He has a host of other futuristic notions that engineers already have been hired to work on, Hall said. They include robots that rearrange furniture at the push of a button, 4-by-4-foot kitchens, and high-tech toilets that can help detect medical problems.
The communities would be self-sustaining, he said. No cars and trucks would roam inside a village. Rooftops would become small farms, and businesses within NewVistas would meet basic consumer needs.
But Hall’s vision comes with a big catch.
Residents would be required to relinquish all assets to NewVistas’ for-profit trust. And forget government by town meeting. Each village would answer to a hierarchy akin to the Mormon model.
“It’s true that it’s not democracy. But if anyone thinks they have democracy, they’re nuts,” Hall said of Vermonters. In reality, local government in the state is “a bunch of little dictatorships and fiefdoms,” he said.
Hall’s plan came to light when Nicole Antal, a former part-time librarian in Sharon, was putting together the town’s annual report for 2015 and noticed something peculiar. A foundation based in Utah had recently made four purchases totaling hundreds of acres.
She went online, discovered the vision of the NewVistas Foundation, and later spoke with Hall over the telephone. Astonished by the scope of the plan, Antal wrote on a local blog about Hall’s quiet transactions. The news caused a statewide sensation, nearly all of it negative.
“The idea of putting a development that would have 20,000 people in the middle of four rural Vermont towns is absurd,” said state Representative Tim Briglin, who represents Sharon and Strafford.
Since then, Hall has made his pitch at several public meetings, and the reception has not been kind.
“I think the man is delusional,” said Michael Sacca, an independent filmmaker who leads Alliance for Vermont Communities, an opposition group. “He’s an engineer. He’s not a humanist, and he doesn’t understand people.”
The real delusion, Hall counters, is perpetuating a dying way of life — an economy that works only for “hippies” and “artists” and people “on the dole.”
Too many Vermonters, he said, “think they’re green because they have trees around them, but in reality they have two cars and jobs 40 miles away.”
Each of the four towns has opposed the project in nonbinding votes, but only Strafford has zoning bylaws, Sacca said. However, Hall faces a significant obstacle in Act 250, a state law that requires major developments to pass a gantlet of requirements designed to protect communities and the environment.
Kevin Ellis, a public relations executive who once advised Hall, said the proposal has “brought out the worst in Vermonters.” He dismissed the idea that Hall is delusional.
“If Hall is ‘crazy,’ so is [billionaire investor] Elon Musk. So was Einstein and so was Edison,” Ellis said. “If the opponents would get out of their polluting cars and actually sit down and have a conversation on the merits, they might understand that there is a major opportunity staring them in the face.”
Critics, however, said Hall’s dream already is doing damage. The land purchases are skewing the real estate market, they said, leading prospective buyers to shy away and prompting some longtime residents to sell.
“Families have sold their land because they figured it was their only opportunity to make a buck,” said state Representative Jim Masland, whose district includes Sharon and Strafford.
Some 2,300 miles away, Hall has bought 20 homes in an established neighborhood in Provo, Utah, as part of a planned trial run for NewVistas.
Paul Evans, a leader of the local opposition, said Hall has caused “deep and incredible concern” in the enclave near Brigham Young University.
For its part, the Mormon church has distanced itself from the NewVistas projects.
“This is a private venture and is not associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in any way,” said Eric Hawkins, a spokesman at church headquarters in Salt Lake City. “The church makes no judgment about the scientific, environmental, or social merits of the proposed developments. However, for a variety of reasons, we are not in favor of the proposal.”
Although Hall’s faith permeates his conversations about the project, he said religious creed would not be a criterion for living in NewVistas. Local and state laws would apply, and alcohol, which Mormons shun, would even be allowed.
“There will be lots of beer joints,” Hall said with a chuckle.
One way or another, he vows to bring his vision to life. “I’m absolutely firm in my views,” he said.
His certitude is exactly what makes people anxious.
“There’s no stopping him, in my opinion,” said Gerry Huppee, a retired electronic test technician who came to Vermont for college and never left. “I think he’ll get his way in the end.”
His wife thinks otherwise.
“He doesn’t know us. He doesn’t know the state. He hasn’t come up against the fortitude of Vermonters before,” Jane Huppee said. “I think he’s met his match. He’s patient, but so are we.”