He pulled up to King Farm, 154 acres of preserved farm and forest, with a clapboard farmhouse that is headquarters for the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission. It was the first of a handful of meetings Ellis had scheduled for Hall’s three-day visit. He was there to start convincing the commission staff and executive committee members that his futuristic plan is right for Vermont.
Bill Emmons, the committee chair, invited the wealthy Mormon businessman to take a seat at the wood table. Emmons, a Pomfret resident, wore Carhartts and a baseball cap with the words Cloudland Farm — a cattle-and-vegetable operation that’s been in his family since 1908.
Dressed in a pristine white dress shirt and khaki pants, Hall didn’t waste time getting to the point: “I’m the darn guy that caused all these problems, and I’m here to explain what’s going on.”
Among the 21 people who’d come to hear Hall’s explanation were a Bloomberg Businessweek reporter and several local journalists, including Nicole Antal. She uncovered Hall’s plans last March after noticing that an entity called NewVista Foundation had bought 900 acres in Sharon, South Royalton, Strafford and Tunbridge.
Hall gave a meandering account of his personal history. His father invented a synthetic diamond, and Hall said he himself has 600 patents, many related to drilling technology.
Inspired by a historic document drafted by Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon religion, Hall wants to build densely populated communities in multiple locations around the world, supported by local agriculture and industry. Buildings would be outfitted with sophisticated waste-management systems and rooftop greenhouses.
This out-there proposal has stoked concern throughout the Upper Valley, where people worry that it would destroy the bucolic character of their communities.
By Hall’s estimate, the 20,000-person development — a mash-up of Mormon principles and modern technology — won’t happen in Vermont for at least several decades. But if it’s a success, he told the commission, his foundation would keep going. “In my crazy mind … you’d have 20 million people in Vermont,” he said.
The room was silent.
After Hall finished his intro, people began politely but bluntly critiquing his vision.
Preeminent environmentalist Gus Speth, of Strafford, told Hall: “You have selected the most incongruous place imaginable to plop this huge experiment in social engineering down.” He went on, “It’s the biggest existential threat to this area that I can imagine.”
Speth also cautioned Hall: “The people who live here are going to fight every step of the way to be sure that this doesn’t come to fruition.”
Hall listened to Speth placidly before replying: “I don’t intend it to happen here for a long time.” A moment later, he doubled down: “I personally think that eventually, the people of Vermont will ask for it.”
Emmons seemed slightly more open to the idea. “I think you’re onto something,” he told Hall. But, he added, “I’m not sure it’s the right place."
In Vermont, where Hall says he has purchased 1,500 of the 5,000 acres he needs for the first community, his only imminent plan is to start experimenting with new farming techniques that rely on modular greenhouses and technology pioneered by marijuana growers.
Emmons suggested that “conventional farmers” prefer to work in open fields and might not embrace the greenhouse approach. He encouraged Hall to have his engineers focus on more pragmatic goals — for instance, figuring out a more efficient method of haying.
The Utah businessman’s eagerness to engage with local residents was also fueling their fears. Speth suggested that Hall was attempting to “lull people into thinking that this is a remote thing that’s not going to happen, when you seem to be moving as fast as you can.”
At the end of the 90-minute meeting, Emmons thanked Hall for coming.