Vermont Doesn't Want a Mormon Techno-Utopia
Though the state's history may suggest otherwise, not all radical experiments in intentional living are welcome.
In 1954, Tracy Hall got sick of waiting around for the earth to spit out diamonds. He figured out how to press them into existence. David Hall, his son, is sick of waiting around for the earth to spit out idyllic communities, so he’s using his fortune and his father’s high-pressure strategy to try to build them. The man who built and sold Novatek, a company that supplies diamonds for use in oil drilling, is scooping up land around the world, shelling out millions in the hopes that he can finally build a Mormon techno-utopia.
We’re going to need to backtrack. Two centuries ago, Joseph Smith founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Along with countless other apparent divine revelations, Smith offered his followers a vision of an ideal community, the Mormon utopia. He called it the Plat of Zion and he detailed its design and order. It was not just Smith’s ideal community; it was the ideal community. These towns would be agrarian, self-sufficient, pious and multitudinous. Each would accommodate 20,000 Mormons on a one-square-mile grid. Smith wanted his dream communities to “fill up the world,” but he failed to build even one.
Hall intends to use Smith’s plans to turn the prophet’s birthplace, Sharon, Vermont into a Plat. He’s already purchased about a thousand acres of idyllic Vermont farmland for upwards of $3.6 million and he’s not stopping there. He wants 5,000 acres to house 20,000 residents and he’s planning to spend a quarter of a billion dollars to make his NewVista development a reality.
Like diamonds, communities have traditionally formed naturally. Under certain conditions, a couple homes turn into a village. Over time, this village will face pressures that necessitate expansion; soon enough, the village becomes a town. As time goes on, residents iron out imperfections, and, eventually — behold — there’s Burlington.
In Vermont, people take pride in the evidence of this process. Most towns aren’t on grids, and covered bridges from the 19th century have signs that read “Two Dollars Fine for Driving on This Bridge Faster than a Walk.” The Green Mountain State’s redneck and hippie communities can agree on this narrative, if not much else.
This character — along with cheap, abundant, isolated land — makes Vermont an attractive state for outsiders. Utopians have long seen opportunity and freedom in the state’s rolling hills. Beginning in the 1830s, acolytes from various religions, including Mormonism, came to establish colonies, the vast majority of which were eventually dismantled or relocated. The trend continued through the 20th century as social and political revolutionaries followed in the devout colonists’ tracks. In the 1960s and ‘70s, disaffected free thinkers nationwide banded together and headed for those alluring hills. Vermont was overrun with communes.
Again, most communes failed. One such failed endeavor was called Prickly Mountain, the brainchild of two young architects, David Sellers and Bill Rienecke, fresh out of Yale architecture school. They hoped to build an antiestablishment ski chalet sanctuary, but chose to forgo their schooling and invent a new method. The method was to design structures as they constructed them. There were no blueprints, no plans, and no rules.
Writer Karrie Jacobs wrote the definitive article on Prickly Mountain. While they failed to “get rich by reinventing the ski chalet,” Jacobs tells Inverse, they succeeded in experimenting with construction. “Instead of really making money selling them, they started selling off pieces of land cheap to other architects who followed them up there, and, collectively, they built a bunch of very weird looking houses.” These architects wanted to have fun: they were “sick of the modernist orthodoxy that they were being taught,” she says. “So they all ran away together.”
Prickly Mountain was not exactly a utopia. There was little “social engineering,” as Jacobs puts it, which she sees as necessary for a settlement to qualify as a utopian project. “People in certain utopian communities would all believe in something, or have certain rituals,” she explains. “Maybe they were having no sex, or lots of sex, or not eating meat, or weaving baskets — whatever.” True utopias are most often attempts by strong-minded individuals to escape and subvert modern society’s woes. Utopians wish to see their own societal ideals play out. Accordingly, utopians compel their new residents to fall into step. Those who wish to live in such communes must abide by the founders’ guidelines. If they do not abide by these principles — if they stop seeing the founder as prophet — they can walk. They can return to society.
Despite the fact that most failed, a few earned their keep. Total Loss Farm in Guilford, Vermont, was a relative success. Several kids fresh out of Boston University, including Jacobs’s cousin Verandah Porche, bought a farm in southern Vermont. Porche tells Inverse via email that Total Loss Farm was “the bunking up of impecunious, long-winded, post-collegiate, idealistic but battle-weary, adventurous pals with few practical skills.”
Together, they resolved to move away from cities and back in time. “They thought that they were going to grow food and be self-sufficient,” Jacobs explains. “I don’t know that they were ever very good at that, but they produced. They wrote some books, took some photographs, and had a happy life up there for a long time.” It was a low-profile endeavor. There was very little about which the locals could complain. Many could even empathize: Vermont, with its secessionists and hermits, has long been a subversive state.
But outsiders must strike the proper chord. Locals don’t welcome all comers with open arms. Though Sharon is Joseph Smith’s birthplace, he left with his family over 200 years ago, at age 12. The town’s residents today don’t consider David Hall’s personal paradise a necessary homage to Smith, the presumptive visionary; there’s already a granite obelisk in his honor that more than suffices. So these locals are mobilizing against the project.
Looking at Hall’s plans, this resistance is understandable. Though the timescale is about 50 years, Hall’s land-grabbing makes it clear that he intends to use money to get his way. This is not the sort of thing Vermonters go in for.
Hall is departing from Smith’s original plans, but — given that two centuries have passed — not by much. First, he’s increased the size of each community from one to almost three square miles. Multi-family homes and “work-live units” comprise the available housing options, all of which are relatively small and minimalistic. They’re “free,” provided you work for the community and give up all your money when you move in. (More on that below.)
Gone from Smith’s vision are the barns and stables, though Hall’s keeping the spirit of alternative transportation alive: “People will not be containerized by vehicles and herded down roads; they will walk amongst each other, amid gardens, groves and orchards,” Hall writes. This is a partial truth: disabled residents will literally be containerized by vehicles — electric pods — and herded down roads. These same pods will transport food and freight, and will run beneath the sidewalks themselves. In bad weather or when in a hurry, residents will be permitted to ride in these vague subterranean pods.
Most planned communities need selling points. Founders need to be able to list off, in brief, why their projects are upstanding and righteous — and they need to be able to do so without appealing to religion. Florida’s Babcock Ranch turned to Silicon Valley for inspiration, and developer Syd Kitson is pioneering the world’s first solar-powered smart town. Selling points: solar power, smart town. David Hall is leveraging “energy sufficiency,” because these days, few can say no to sustainable building and living. NewVistas, then, will purportedly harvest energy from the “sun, wind, and earth,” and will recycle water and food waste. Greenhouses will adorn every roof.
As for the social engineering — that which makes this Hall’s utopian project, and not just a planned community — there is plenty to go around. Those who don’t enjoy the restrictions are free to walk at any time. But those who wish to stay? “Participants and their dependents are required to abide by the rules and bylaws of the community.”
These rules and bylaws are already numerous. There’s a strict, prescribed diet. “There will be a need for regulation of the kinds of food that are made available to NewVista residents,” Hall writes. “The traditional western diet… will have to be greatly modified.”
In Vermont, where winters are long, it’ll take some unprecedented success to make all this work. Or it’ll take money. And if Hall gets his way, there will be no shortage of money at his disposal. Anyone who moves into a NewVista will have to invest all their money in the town. “When individuals come to a NewVista community,” Hall writes, “they will deposit their intellectual assets and cash with the community capital fund.” They must sell their automobiles and other “large personal assets” and similarly deposit — read: donate — this money. Ten percent of all business profits go to the town. NewVistas will own its residents’ intellectual property.
Karrie Jacobs isn’t convinced that residents would be able to put up with the dictates for very long. “To me, it seems like the thing that makes utopian schemes fail is that there’s only a certain amount of social engineering that people will tolerate,” she says. Hall, in Jacobs’s eyes, is overdoing it. Looking at other utopian projects’ track records, it’s hard to disagree.
These stringent policies are not the only aspects of Hall’s ideas infuriating would-be neighbors, who have a website dedicated to stopping his project. He’s behaved rashly. He’s buying up acres upon acres of open land in order to build prefabbed developments that won’t look anything like farmhouses or barns. He’s trying to bring 20,000 people to a town with a population of 1,500. To put that in perspective, Vermont’s state capital, Montpelier, has only about 8,000 people. “Coming in with a development at that scale is pretty antithetical to the whole spirit of Vermont,” Jacobs says.
Hall doesn’t seem to know the first thing about Vermont and its ways, and continues to act as though that’s not problematic. To Hall’s credit, he’s attended at least one town meeting and personally defended his plan, but he doesn’t seem to take criticism too well. “I apologize that I have such great confidence in it,” he told Bloomberg. “I personally think that the people of Vermont will eventually ask for it.”