Development based on Mormonism founder's plan finds few fans
SHARON — An obelisk soars into the sky on a hill in central Vermont, marking the birthplace of the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — and perhaps heralding an immense, futuristic, utopia-like community based on his papers.
If a Mormon Utah businessman has his way, a development would sprout nearby, albeit many years in the future, that includes housing for 20,000 people, offices, gardens, 48 basketball courts and 48 Olympic-size swimming pools.
David Hall's vision would be one thing if it were pie in the sky. But he has deep pockets, 150 engineers working on the concept and land deals proving he's serious. His plan, the scope of which has never been seen in this largely rural and mountainous area, is creating concern.
"I feel like this is a bomb that's going to land on us and destroy what we have built up over the last 200 years here," said Randy Leavitt, of South Royalton, during a community meeting with Hall by phone Thursday evening.
Hall said that he expected locals to be opposed but hopes that as other such developments are built and become successful, residents will warm to the idea.
Hall's family foundation is also pursuing NewVista developments in Nevada, China, India and Bhutan, he said, but he would not disclose the exact locations.
"I already know that the local people don't want this," he told the crowd at the Tunbridge library. "What I'm counting on is that over time people will come to like it as they understand it."
It's billed as an economically, ecologically and socially sustainable development and would include 24 main buildings, small apartments (200 square feet per person), rooftop greenhouses and other gardens that would grow food, and offices that could be converted into hotel or meeting rooms. The community would be walkable and include enclosed "pod ways" for electric public transit.
If all the development's residents were new to tiny Vermont, it would increase the state's population by more than 3 percent and quadruple the population of the four small towns where he has bought land.
Hall's father, a General Electric chemist, invented a process for making synthetic diamonds that is used for cutting, grinding, drilling and polishing in the electronics, computer and energy industries. Hall built on that and became an expert in drilling technology. In September, he sold his company, Novatek, and most of the proceeds are going into engineering studies for the project.
Since the 1970s, Hall told The Associated Press in an interview, he has spent $100 million on engineering and other research on the concept and plans to spend $100 million more, with spinoff businesses such as transformable walls for the apartments and foam-flushing toilets. Hall, 69, said he doesn't expect the Vermont project to happen in his lifetime but possibly during the lifetime of his daughter, who is president of the family's NewVista Foundation and plans to spend this summer in Vermont working with professionals to manage the land and homes.
The foundation plans this year to start building eight apartments and then a village with 80 apartments in Provo, Utah. Within 15 years, he hopes to create similar developments throughout the United States and have one full community going in 20 years.
While the communities are modeled after Smith's 1833 plans for the city of Zion to be built near Independence, Missouri, which called for a rectangular grid with square plots, they will not be religiously exclusive, Hall said.
The plans set out by Smith resemble some other communities of the time, especially the Fourierite socialist communes, including Utopia, Ohio, and to some degree the Oneida Community, a religious commune in New York, said Dona Brown, a history professor at the University of Vermont.
But the development won't be like the communes that sprang up in Vermont during the counterculture of the 1960s.
"This is very free market. You've got lots of delis all over the place, just around the corner," Hall said. "It's free-market, more city-type living that way; rural living because you always have gardens and a view right there. So it's a combination between dense housing and rural."
What's the attraction?
Surveys by the foundation show that 10 percent of the population would already prefer to live in smaller homes as long as they had conveniences, Hall said. He also cited a growing desire for locally raised food.
Buildings, land and equipment would be community-owned and leased by individuals or families, but community members would own their businesses, he said.
The project would require environmental and community impact reviews in Vermont, which Hall believes would enable his project, while some residents say they would quash it.
So far, the foundation has bought nearly 900 acres in the communities of Sharon, Tunbridge, Strafford and Royalton and hopes to patch together 4,100 more acres over the next 30 to 50 years as people sell homes and farms. For now, he plans to lease the Vermont properties, which include about a dozen homes.
Hall chose Vermont because it's Smith's birthplace and he recalls childhood trips to the memorial.
"I'm interested in it just because it's such a beautiful area and I've just had connection for so long," he said. "And the Joseph Smith papers, not the religion, are the foundation of the concept."
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