The tiny towns in Vermont’s Upper Valley are practically postcard-worthy: White steeples, general stores where the owners know your name, rolling hills dotted with spirals of hay and contented cows. But because they are located just off Vermont’s major highway, Interstate 89, and because fiercely independent landowners have historically opposed the idea of zoning regulations, these communities frequently face challenges to their idyllic image. Self-storage companies, cell providers, retailers, and developers have put forth decidedly unbucolic plans plenty of times over the years; sometimes they win, and sometimes — as in the case of a recent effort to build a mixed-use development spurned by environmental groups — they lose.

Now residents of the area have learned about an unfolding real-estate project whose scale and ambition dwarfs anything they’ve seen before. As reported by local news outlets last week, a Utah businessman who made his fortune supplying the gas and oil industry with drilling technologies has spent $3.6 million on 10 real-estate transactions since the fall, buying up 900 acres in four neighboring towns. The purchases are part of a quest to develop a 5,000-acre, $5 billion sustainable community that takes its inspiration from Mormon founder Joseph Smith.

It turns out the Mormons might have been some of the earliest advocates of sustainable cities. In 1833, Smith drew up a design for a mile-square city plot that was intended to be mixed-use, walkable, and edged by farmland that would produce food for the 20,000 people living within. Smith apparently envisioned 50 of these 20,000-person, mile-square units laid out cheek by jowl, creating a metropolis of 1,000,000 very happy, well-fed people; eventually, he suggested, the model could “fill the world.”