The NewVistas Project: A Year Later
A year ago, on March 22nd, 2016, a news story went viral in my community. A new story which a few days earlier, only a few people knew about: the NewVistas project.
A couple of weeks before releasing the story, I had quit my day job of being the town librarian of a small, quaint, one-room library, staffed by one part-time employee. My job consisted of being a counselor, an accountant, a marketing wizard, a fundraising expert, a social worker, and a mobile help-desk (I would often go to people’s house to fix their computer.) Occasionally, I would recommend books and choose books to add to our collection. I quit because, after 4 years, the part-time job became full-time, with none of the pay or benefits. My family had just moved to our off-grid cabin, with a strong desire to slow down and refocus our energy into our nascent homestead. We were both stressed, between four jobs and a huge project in our personal life. My son also has a chronic condition, which requires constant monitoring, even at night. I would spend my time running between home, the school for daily emergencies, or work for unexpected meetings. I came home from my positive yearly review, in tears from exhaustion. We decided to slow down, and I quit my job.
And slow down I did, for a whole week before burying myself into a new project. I had just finished working on the yearly Town Report for my town, Sharon in Vermont, which is a summary of all the financial information the town office releases to the public to vote on Town Meeting Day, in early March. For the report, the listers also provide a list of properties which were sold the previous year, which for a town of the size of Sharon, was about 15 properties. The NewVistas Foundation had bought 3 properties, and after some digging in neighboring towns’ vault, I discovered other sales. After much googling around, I matched the address provided on the sales record with a foundation based in Utah. I couldn’t find contact information for the owner, though, and the contact form on their website didn’t lead me anywhere.
At the time, I didn’t have a clear idea of what I would do with this information. I was still in librarian-mode, thinking about fundraising ideas (would a foundation want to donate money to a small library?). I was blogging for a local website, dailyUV, and didn’t think this particular story fit with my blog posts.
As maple syrup season was starting, I put the story at the bottom of my priorities. Spending hours outside by myself, boiling the sap, my thoughts would still come back to the NewVistas project. I started googling again, addresses of property they bought. And someone had suddenly posted the main property on Airbnb. I contacted the person and told her I was writing a story and was planning on releasing the next week (I didn’t have much at the time, speculations mainly, but I tend to have a vivid imagination.)
An hour later, my phone was ringing, a number from Utah. I didn’t pick up, I didn’t know what to say or ask. The person calling me was David Hall, founder of the NewVistas Foundation. He left a message, and also emailed me. We set-up a time to talk on the phone. I spent the next day googling “how to talk like a real journalist”, “how to overcome your phone phobia”, and reading articles titled “5 ways to get answers during an interview”.
The day of our phone interview came, I dropped my kid off at school and went next to the river, where I knew the cell reception was good. I bought a new notebook and a new pen for the occasion. We talked on the phone for over an hour. When I hung up, I stayed silent in the car for 30 minutes, trying to figure out what just happened (20,000 moving in our small towns? 150 engineers already working on this?). I picked up my kid, and we went for an impromptu lunch with my husband: I needed to talk to someone.
A day later, knowing that this was an unusual and likely disruptive story, I emailed my contact person at DailyUV with the story, to see if this was something that I could publish on their blogging platform. I was planning on releasing the same afternoon, but he asked me to wait a couple of days, to ensure that the website could handle the traffic this might generate. On March 22nd, I woke up at 6 am and clicked the much dreaded “publish” button.
The whirlwind starting immediately, I received hundreds of emails, facebook messages. I received calls, people stopped by my house, stopped me at the local grocery store. I could hear people whispering NewVistas everywhere I went. After a few days, my 5-year-old son would ask me why everyone wanted to talk to me about NewVistas all the time, and after a few days, he knew everything there was to know about the project. A few people who had read my story before it became public told me that I should expect a strong response from people.
My job as the nice librarian didn’t prepare me for the response. I became a journalist with no formal training, or willingness to become one. As a librarian, the propagation of information is crucial to me, and I couldn’t comprehend people would be so upset with me.
I was presenting facts, who could blame me for doing so? I expected people to be upset, but I wasn’t expecting people to be upset at me. I received a few nasty emails, I received a death threat, I got yelled at a few times. People who weren’t upset at me were so upset with the project that they took their fear and anger out on me. Again, yelling. People would hug me and cry, or thank me profusely. I had no idea how to handle it, I still don’t. I would go home and cry, or sometimes just doing it on the spot.
People would call me with the suspicion that their neighbor might be selling. People would ask me to dig for information about other properties. Rumors and conspiracy theories started spreading.
After a few days, I regretted that the story came out. I feared that my town would be divided over this issue. It seemed that way at the time and it would keep me up at night. People kept and keep selling their land to David Hall, faster than what he budgeted for. I felt responsible for accelerating his process. I felt responsible for neighbors being suspicious of each other.
All the properties bought in recent months by NewVistas Foundation. In blue, all the properties owned now by NewVistas Foundation. In red, the Joseph Smith Memorial. All data is approximate. Map by the author.
Yet, this was my story, these were the facts and so I continued reporting on it. The next month was filled with evening meetings and phone calls with news outlets. I would be boiling down maple syrup outside, with my laptop to answer urgent emails. Through the whole summer, I would often be in the garden, talking on the phone about the project with a journalist or a concerned citizen.
Through it all, I met the most interesting people. I talked to REAL journalists (from Bloomberg, The Guardian, VPR, VTDigger, Seven Days, etc.), I met with my representatives and people running for office, law professors. My family had dinner with David Hall, and I would have weekly conversations with him. I also met his daughter and her family and became friends through this very unusual situation.
It provided opportunities: I started writing for my local newspaper, and I still write about NewVistas for DailyUV when I think the local newspapers are not reporting enough on it. On most days, I pretend I know what I am doing. Some days, I fantasize about going back to school to get the piece of paper stating that I am, in fact, a real journalist.
My kid has gone to many meetings in a year, always being the only child in the room. We attended a two-hours gubernatorial debate; sitting next to me with his notebook and pen, he was pretending to take notes, “just like you” he said smiling. On a few pages, I could read “NEWVISTA”. He attended a protest that I was covering, making signs and discovering that people have a voice when they don’t agree. He often comes to town offices to go through public records for new sales, making friends with the town clerks. In the eyes of my child, I am, in fact, a real journalist.
My son, joining the protest while I was working, interviewing people.
A lot happened in a year: the Alliance for Vermont Communities was created as a response to the project. People met with their neighbors to show their support and pledge that they would not sell to NewVistas. Conversations about the future of our communities were organized with one goal: we know what we don’t want, but what do we want? On March 7th, 2017, the four affected towns voted at 90% to oppose this project.
Local state representatives meeting and supporting their constituents' efforts in voicing their concern about the NewVistas project
David and I still talk. We both are trying to persuade each other, respectfully. I still am trying to argue that Vermont is not the place for his project. A day after the March 7th Town Meeting vote, I emailed him to ask for his opinion on the results. He said, ‘It would be unreasonable for us to expect any support for it but that is also why we have not and won't apply for any development until it is well proven in many locations elsewhere.’ He added, ‘By the time it is proven out well, you will want to move in.’ I don’t think I have yet succeeded in persuading him.
If you have any information, questions, or comments, feel free to comment on this post or email me at email@example.com. I also write about living off-grid, living in a tiny house, and homesteading in Vermont. You can read all my stories at dailyuv.com/VeryVermont. Sign up for email updates HERE so you never miss one of my posts.