Feb 1, 2017

Building Zion: the controversial plan for a Mormon-inspired city in Vermont

A Mormon businessman is buying up land to build master-planned towns from scratch, inspired by church founder Joseph Smith’s idea for a ‘plat of Zion’ – so why does the church oppose it?

How the Mormons are planning a city for 500,000 in Florida

The Guardian
Claire Provost in Sharon, Vermont
January 31, 2017

The roads through rural Vermont wind past rolling forested hills and quaint small towns, including South Royalton – used as the quintessential New England village in the opening sequence of the TV series Gilmore Girls.

A short drive away, the Tunbridge World’s Fair has run almost continuously since 1867, with games, contests for best pig or pumpkin, and displays of old-time printing presses and candle making.

And not far from there, one stop on the area’s low-key tourist trail dotted with maple syrup farms, pottery workshops and picturesque covered bridges, is the birthplace of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church.

The site now hosts a museum, run by the church and staffed by cheerful missionaries. Outside, a giant granite obelisk rises towards the sky. Calming music flows from speakers located high up in the trees. It is a peaceful place, designed to inspire reflection.

But, over the last year, it has also found itself at the centre of a controversy. In front of many houses and shops, signs exclaim: “Save our communities. Stop NewVistas.”

NewVistas is the name of an unusual, indeed, one-of-a-kind project led by a Mormon businessman named David Hall to build new, master-planned towns from scratch – inspired by notes written by Joseph Smith himself in 1833.

Hall says these designs, which described how ideal Mormon settlements should be laid out and were drafted almost 200 years ago, offer answers to modern-day challenges of sustainable living. And to make it happen, he has been buying land – lots of it.

The first goal is to build a NewVista community near Smith’s birthplace in Vermont, which would be home to about 20,000 people. The next step: to build more. Ultimately, Hall’s vision describes a new “city” of connected communities, with a total population of up to one million.

The fantastic story first came to light last spring, thanks to the careful eye and diligent research of a librarian in the small town of Sharon, who uncovered a series of local land purchases that she traced to the businessman and his plans.

Reflecting on that time, Nicole Antal, 30, says she’d found it all hard to believe – particularly the scale.

“This is very big for Vermont,” she says. “Burlington is 40,000 people. Montpellier, the state capital, is 7,000. This is not one guy buying a house and trying something new.”

To date, the NewVistas project is thought to have purchased as many as 1,500 acres in central Vermont – with plans to buy much more. It’s focused on a largely rural area at the intersection of four tiny towns – Royalton, Sharon, Stafford and Tunbridge – which have a combined population of just 6,400.

Nor is the project just buying up vacant lots. It appears to be purchasing whatever it can. Antal says a few properties sold to NewVistas were second homes. But so far acquisitions have been fragmented parcels.

Antal first blogged about the land purchases in March 2016, setting off a flurry of articles in the local media. Soon Bloomberg Businessweek and the Wall Street Journal picked up the story, revelling in its unusual characters, audacious vision and local controversy.

Residents in Vermont, meanwhile, had started to organise in opposition.

“This threat is like nothing we’ve ever seen or could have conjured up ourselves,” says one long-term local resident Jane Huppe, 58, describing it as a “top-down venture” that doesn’t fit with the area’s own ideas for how it should develop.

“It hit us like a ton of bricks,” she adds. Antal agrees, and says it could completely overwhelm existing communities. “Why does he not bring this to where they need massive amounts of housing, instead of disrupting the rural countryside?”

Building Zion

Joseph Smith left central Vermont as a child with his family, moving to rural New York, where he later founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But despite his rural upbringing, Smith outlined a vision for new and compact settlements that would go on to influence the planning of hundreds of American towns.

“This farm boy ... dreamed to build a metropolis that rivalled the large seaport cities he had only heard about,” writes the academic Benjamin Park, in a 2013 paper.

In the 1830s, Smith laid out a detailed plan called the “plat of Zion”. It described new towns, designed to be self-sufficient, ordered by rigid grids, and surrounded by farmland and wilderness.

The plan included ideal sizes of streets, blocks and lots. Roads should be straight and oriented to the points of a compass. Homes, built in uniform stone or brick, should sit within deep individual lots, with front yards and back gardens.

Significantly, the plan lacked designated areas for government buildings and town halls, as well as for markets or commercial districts. Instead, central blocks would be set aside for temples and community buildings.

Once fully occupied, with 15-20,000 inhabitants, the settlement would not be expanded. Instead, others would be built, to “fill up the world in these last days”.

This wasn’t a theoretical plan. Smith hoped to build a new town like this – in Missouri, specifically. In 1831, he said that Independence, in Jackson County, had been revealed as “the land of promise and the place for the City of Zion”.

Unlike other new religious movements in America at the time, which were “warning congregants of the evils rooted in urban cities”, Smith believed that “cities were not to be fled, but sacralised,” writes Park. This reflected key Mormon principles that “focused on establishing a righteous civilisation ... rather than individuals.

“[Zion] was literally the ‘centre place’ for a new civilisation destined to expand as God’s people multiplied. Gathering and city building were not incidental parts of sanctification, but the goal.”

In the summer of 1833, Smith and other church leaders met in Kirtland, Ohio, and drew up specific blueprints for a city of Zion, including designs for specific buildings. Smith sent these to church members in Missouri, who were to“purchase this whole region of country, as soon as time will permit”.

It didn’t happen; early Mormon settlers were driven out of Missouri. And in 1844, Smith was killed, before his city plan could be realised.

His designs survived, however, and were later used as a blueprint for as many as 500 communities in the American West. In the 1990s, the American Planning Association went so far as to recognise the plat of Zion documents for their historical significance and influence.


Most famously, church leader Brigham Young drew on the plat for the design of Salt Lake City, which was established by Mormon settlers in 1847. The city’s core still reflects this: it features wide streets, oriented north-south, and mammoth blocks focusing on Temple Square, where a church museum also holds the original plat of Zion documents.

The concept of Zion remains key to the Mormon faith. The church explains that it represents the “pure in heart”, but also “a place where the pure in heart live”. It says: “In the latter days a city named Zion will be built [in Missouri] ... to which the tribes of Israel will gather.” In the meantime, members “are counselled to build up Zion wherever they are living”.

Salt Lake City itself was also, of course, heavily influenced by broader trends in American life, such as the completion of the transnational railroad in the 19th century, which brought new visitors and migrants, and later by car culture and sprawl.

In December 2016, a popular architecture and design podcast noted that the city’s design means that addresses “can read like sets of coordinates. ‘300 South 2100 East’, for example, means three blocks south and 21 blocks east of Temple Square.” But, it said, “the most striking thing about Salt Lake’s grid is the scale”:

The streets are so menacing and crossings so long that the city has placed plastic buckets on lampposts which hold flags that pedestrians can carry to the other side while crossing. In present-day Salt Lake City, it’s hard to get around without a car.”

Nevertheless, some experts argue that the plat of Zion was a precursor to intelligent urban planning – and leaves a legacy that could help tackle haphazard developments today.

The NewVistas project

This is of little comfort for those Vermont residents who oppose NewVistas. The Mormon church, too, is apparently displeased: they don’t support the plan.

David Hall, the businessman behind the contemporary and controversial NewVistas project, lives in Provo, Utah. His background is in big energy: he reportedly made his fortune selling sophisticated drilling tools to the oil and gas industry.

In an interview with the Guardian, he says Smith’s city plans remain remarkably relevant for today’s challenges.

“The plat describes a very low footprint, 20,000 people on only three square miles. Everything else was supposed to be wilderness. It’s telling us not to sprawl, which is what we do, we even go into the mountains,” Hall says. “It really makes sense for our time.”

The project’s website says it follows the plat laid out by Smith and that its architectural plans are also “based on the same sizing specifications for early Mormon temples, which were designed to fulfil multiple functions”.

But, Hall says, the goal is to develop “secular, sustainable communities” taking advantage of modern technology, including food production techniques that make it possible for people to live in ever-smaller spaces. It is envisaged for Mormons and non-Mormons alike.

The NewVistas Foundation argues: “Sustainable living in the modern world requires high density urban development,” pointing out that sprawl consumes too much energy and other resources, not just in urban areas but rural as well.

It presents a detailed, wide-ranging plan, including specific designs for three-storey “standard buildings” with apartments, businesses, and some farming and manufacturing, all located in one place.

More futuristic ideas include internal walls and floors that could be moved by robotic systems, so that families could live in small spaces that are easily rearranged. Outside, “walkway-podway” systems (something like elevated sidewalks and an underground tube network) would operate on multiple levels to transport people and goods. New toilets would monitor users’ health.

Not unlike Smith’s original vision, the foundation says the goal is “massive scalability”, so that these communities can be “replicated to encompass all of the earth’s billions of people”. It calls itself nothing less than a new “urban model and economic system for the 21st century”.

Each complete “NewVista” would have as many as one million people, but be composed of 50 similar and carefully designed communities, each with a population of 15,000 to 25,000 and “the capacity to be self-sufficient with respect to basic needs”.

There are also unusual proposals for how these places will be run: “organised according to a private capitalistic economic structure. The community is not a political entity but a productive enterprise, like a company town.”

There is even a suggestion that a NewVista Community Corporation would have control over things like “land use, transportation, and community environment, which are usually matters of government concern”.

Hall predicts that the first NewVistas community could require as much as $3bn (£2.3bn) to build, expecting 20% to come from the first residents and the bulk from other investors – with nothing from the church.

“NewVistas is my own modern interpretation of Joseph Smith’s community documents and I have not ever discussed the ideas with the church and won’t involve them in the future.”

Vermont strikes back

“We didn’t waste any time when this came up,” says Michael Sacca, 61, director of the Alliance for Vermont Communities, a new non-profit organisation formed by local residents in opposition to Hall’s plans – and any other similar large-scale developments in future.

Sitting on the porch outside the house he and his wife built themselves 15 years ago, with the sun setting below the hills around him, he says: “We want to protect our future and our children’s future and the region ... we want to maintain our lifestyle and our communities.”

The NewVistas plans simply don’t fit into local, regional or state visions of how Vermont should develop, Sacca argues, which instead aim to “concentrate development as much as possible in village centres, town centres, leaving rural areas for rural life”.

Sacca also describes the corporate structure envisaged for NewVistas as “Orwellian” and as an experiment designed to “stand on its own as an insulated corporate town”.

Opposition to the project, which would transform the area, has been vibrant and vocal. Sign and stickers are visible on the streets of central Vermont, and petitions are calling for discussion at town meetings in March.

The Alliance is also tracking land purchases. By their count, NewVistas has already acquired an estimated 1,200-1,500 acres of land – with purchases continuing despite the controversy.

The Mormon church is itself, a significant land and real estate developer, with farms, ranches, residential and commercial properties across the US. In Florida, a church-owned property is now set to become the site of a new “city” for as many as half a million people by 2080.

However, it does not seem to be too happy about the NewVistas project either.

In August 2016, a church spokesman said: “This is a private venture and is not associated with The Church ... [which] makes no judgment about the scientific, environmental or social merits of the proposed developments. However, for a variety of reasons, we are not in favour of the proposal.”

The NewVistas website explains that “the community layout” envisaged “follows a city plot pattern created by Joseph Smith in June of 1833”. But it also carries an “Important Note” stating that its model “is not presented as a fulfilment of Joseph Smith’s vision. It is not supported or endorsed by the Church”.

The church in Salt Lake City did not respond to requests for comment or further elaboration of its position.

In Vermont, some of the project’s opponents hope they can use Act 250 – the state’s premier land use law – to stop it. This law was enacted decades ago after new highways and ski resorts lured investors into the state. It requires that developers comply with regional plans, as a way to manage growth and protect the environment.

Hall acknowledges his project has been controversial and many people are against it. But he says he’s drawn to Vermont in particular because of its connection to Joseph Smith, because land is relatively cheap, and because there is too much of what he calls “rural sprawl”.

“There’s lots of rules that keep you from building things, so Vermonters would eventually have to approve it – but not right away,” Hall adds, stressing that nothing is happening overnight and it would take decades to realise his plan.

He says technical components must first be worked out, and he needs to “consolidate land”, which can take generations because “we’ve had this trend of subdividing and sprawl, so the reverse process will take a long time”. The project, he argues, “is very unique, but I have a hard time getting people to really look at it and study it.”

Meanwhile, land is also being bought in his home town of Provo, Utah, where NewVistas is again facing local opposition. Professor emeritus at Brigham Young University’s Marriott School, Warner Woodworth, who lives in Provo, described it as a “takeover”.

“To have someone with money and power enter our area and gradually buy up homes, offering distorted purchase power to grab residences, is troubling. It shakes the peace and violates the sense of continuity and mutual care for one another,” Woodworth wrote in September, arguing that Hall’s plans are also a “far cry from the original” plat of Zion idea:

Hall’s system is corporatist, while Joseph’s was more communal. Hall wants to establish a top-down power structure, whereas Joseph envisioned a bottom-up community of common consent. Hall seeks to control. Joseph sought to liberate. The early Zion plat consisted of large family yards and agriculture. In contrast, Hall plans for tiny urban apartments of 200 square feet in a bare, boring apartment.”

But, he suggested: “It may have been more achievable and acceptable if he had engaged more participants from the beginning. While one may disagree with some of his ideas, it’s the process he uses that becomes the fatal step.”

As for Antal, who first discovered Hall’s project, she is concerned about the impact on her family.

“There are some good ideas [in the NewVistas project] ... Polluting less, creating local agriculture. But I don’t think it applies to Vermont. I think Vermont is doing a pretty good job at being sustainable,” she says. “I don’t like that this is being imposed on us.”


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