Updated: May 4, 2018
There's been a lot of anxiety and opposition stirred up around Vermont against a visionary proposal for a planned residential development in Vermont's Upper Valley. The NewVistas proposal, akin to the rural stepchild of Andrés Duany and Buckminster Fuller, has even earned a recent finger-wagging resolution against the development from the Vermont legislature.
The proposal for the adapted reuse of approximately 5,000 acres of privately owned rural land surrounding the village of Sharon has upset locals and many around Vermont for the scope of its vision, the scale of its potential impact, and the roots of its founder's faith. On its surface the planned community envisions a future 25 years from now where as many as 20,000 residents occupy 200sf units and share living amenities within one of fifty 2.5 acre "clustered" developments. Each community is sustained using locally derived renewable power and grown crops, and networked through a sustainable transportation infrastructure.
On its surface this is not the worst idea in the world. So why does an exciting vision of a compact, sustainable settlement with a whiff of the future have so many Vermonters up in arms? Vermont has enjoyed some pretty unusual utopian communities in the past, and its population swelled during the "back to the land movements" of the '20s and the '70s. So what gives, why has David Hall's proposal received such a backlash while seeming "on point" with so many of the Green Mountain State's key talking points -- farm to table, net zero energy, social inclusion, bikable and walkable communities, etc?
There are likely many complex reasons bound up with concepts of identity and agency that prevent a project like NewVistas from taking root in Vermont. Foremost, NewVistas is importing -- dare we say, "parachuting" -- a lot into a rural landscape that has evolved its ways and its power networks over time, generations often. Disruption in this case is painful, especially when it comes with the patina of big money and religious imposition.
And the scale challenge. While many Vermonters enjoy substantial undeveloped parcels of privately owned land, the idea that one person would purchase parcels into a single large and contiguous tract smacks smacks of a monopoly power play. That the technocratically managed land would be developed for high-density living communities adds further to concerns about "character" and the integrity of landscape and memory. This against the backdrop of a trend since the 1970's to "post" more and more private land, taking it out of service to hunters and fishers. We should also consider Williston and the sprawl effect in evidence from Brattleboro to Rutland and St. Johnsbury as our immediate alternatives to planned development.
A third challenge lies in governance. Vermont towns are highly individualized places where impact tends to play out through silent networks that spill over from time to time into selectboard meetings, planning councils and the like. Town Meeting Day still has resonance for many as a reminder that we were once interdependent and shared deliberation and decision-making among neighbors. While reality points to Australian ballot and declining town meeting participation, Vermont prides itself in an image of local democratic self-governance and a project like NewVistas -- and the near shocking influx of unknown populations that it could bring -- pose a threat to this legacy.
Does the fact that NewVistas celebrates Sharon, Vermont as the origins of the Church of the Latter Day Saints (whose founder Joseph Smith was born there in 1805) pose challenges to our socialized script of tolerance and inclusion? Potentially, though the legal documents governing the community seem to suggest that anyone with the means and the aspiration to downsize and collectivize will be welcome. There's nothing to say recent public flaps about MENA refugee resettlement aren't a more powerful and lurking threat.
The biggest obstacle, at its root, appears to be trust. Trust that the surrounding communities will not be negatively impacted. Trust that the NewVistas founder has Vermonters' best interests at heart. Trust that decisions will be made in an inclusive, transparent and -- perhaps most important -- familiar way and that legacy Vermonters will be "heard."
The inspiration for the New Vistas project comes from an 1833 document crafted by Joseph Smith that illustrates the plat of Zion, a planning document used by dozens of Mormon communities to design their settlements. The document, given the American Planning Association's Planning Landmark award in 1996, envisions key principles of agrarianism and community. The project's website updates this plan with contributions in sustainable economics, housing, transportation, energy, and food and diet. Dubbed by some as a "techno-utopia," the vision accounts for a future in Vermont that will be under considerable development pressure from urban and coastal migration.
As the impacts of climate change mature and the preferences of Americans adapt to take those realities into account, it is likely that Vermont -- under current planning and zoning guidelines statewide -- will experience increased and uncoordinated fragmentation of its rural and forest landscape. While NewVistas offers one approach to mitigating ecologically and aesthetically undesirable patterns of human settlement, its most important contribution is starting the clock on an essential statewide conversation.
While propositions such as a 200sf. maximum living area per person may go against the grain of Vermont's present building trends, the question of what living adaptations are appropriate to the coming requirements of environmental remediation is a good one. While the average Vermonter today may travel 22 miles alone to get to work, talking turkey about how to change that behavior is an important step forward. And while Vermont continues our drive to retrofit an aging housing stock to evolving energy production and efficiency standards, thinking about ways to make modern and sustainable housing accessible and affordable to more Vermonters is a nut worth cracking.
The utopian impulse is one that has ebbed and flowed across the American landscape over the last two centuries, and is experiencing something of a resurgence, especially in states like Missouri where land is relatively inexpensive, the climate temperate, and the growing season long. A recent book, Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today's America points to just a few examples of low-tech efforts of individuals and families to achieve a balance between personal well-being and sustainable living in community. Lifestyle enclave communities are sprouting from Powder Mountain (UT) to Serenbe (GA). Vermont has had a run of poor luck sustaining private four season communities at Jay Peak and the Hermitage Club; such efforts are likely to proceed apace elsewhere, for example the residencies at Spruce Peak and the larger Stowe Resort complex.
Perhaps its time to envision and plan for new ways for communities to form and thrive as the acceleration of social sorting erodes trust and fuels discord nationally.
A final consideration. Vermont's policy, business and culture leaders have spent considerable resources addressing the challenges of broadly distributed prosperity in an aging state. What is even less understood -- and mediated -- are the obstacles young people experience finding meaningful, affordable and sustainable livelihoods in a state where costs are high and average wages low. It is at least worth considering the ways a project like NewVistas provides an alternative to an "elite playground" model of economic development in Vermont. A practical -- if disruptive -- vision for an affordable, accessible and enjoyable lifestyle for a significant number of people is worth talking about statewide.
NewVistas offers an important starting place for a hard conversation about a future Vermont that is affordable, sustainable, and joyful for all. While we don't tend to focus public discussion on 25- and 50- year visions for the state (though we're good at industry-specific targets), if nothing else NewVistas opens a window for an excellent conversation about who we are, how we live, and who gets to own a piece of Vermont's future. Here's to more visionary work on Vermont's rural landscape!