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By contrast, Porter extols the deal presented by Russell, with whom he's "been having conversations about this on and off." He describes Russell as having "the ability to get some stuff done" and points out that "an appraisal is just an opinion of value," one of several factors that need to be taken into account in deciding between a private-sector buyer and the TPL offer.

Minutes before the vote was taken on May 9, boardmembers pressed Porter for his take on what they should do. Porter, who conceded that he wore "several" hats in the community, replied, "Are you asking my advice? As an economic-development board member and a downtown businessperson, I certainly prefer private enterprise."

Porter didn't respond to a request for comment about the Polston sale, but testimony in a court hearing a few weeks ago suggests that there was some confusion among boardmembers about Porter's role in the deal. He had begun as a seller's agent and advisor to the board, but the closing documents list him as a "transaction broker" for the sale of the property to Russell. Under Colorado regulations, a transaction broker works with both sides without being an agent of either one. Porter collected a full 6 percent commission ($30,000) for the sale.

At public meetings and in court, park supporters Renee Mackey and others challenged the Alamosa school board’s decision to sell property to RV-resort developer Dan Russell for $250,000 less than their group was offering.
At public meetings and in court, park supporters Renee Mackey and others challenged the Alamosa school board’s decision to sell property to RV-resort developer Dan Russell for $250,000 less than their group was offering.
At public meetings and in court, park supporters Renee Mackey and others challenged the Alamosa school board’s decision to sell property to RV-resort developer Dan Russell for $250,000 less than their group was offering.
At public meetings and in court, park supporters Renee Mackey and others challenged the Alamosa school board’s decision to sell property to RV-resort developer Dan Russell for $250,000 less than their group was offering.

"In court, six out of seven school boardmembers testified that they didn't know if [Porter] was a seller's agent or a broker or when that had changed," says longtime activist Francisco Martinez, one of the attorneys for the park plaintiffs. "They were unaware of the difference." The seventh boardmember, an attorney, stated that Porter had properly performed and disclosed his part in the sale.

"The school board was very complacent," says gardener Oen. "They did not do their work, looking at TPL. I feel that Preston Porter had undue influence on the board. He planted the seed that they'd never see the money, that it would take too long."

Russell told the board that his project would provide as much as $50,000 a year in property taxes; he hoped to build around 200 RV lots, a private fishing pond, and eventually a gated community that would have ready access to a nearby golf course. But his project came with many caveats and "moving parts," too; it hinged on a land swap with the city, trading several acres of Polston land closest to Cole Park for ranch land owned by the city at the north end of the property, and annexation by the city to reduce tap fees and other costs. Yet those complexities didn't seem to bother Porter or the board nearly as much as similar uncertainties concerning the healthy living park.

Many in the Keep Polston Public group believed that Russell's tax calculations were overly optimistic. In the end, they maintained, the decision wasn't about who could offer the best price or which proposal would be best for Alamosa economically — assuming the school board had any business making that call. It was about the close-knit professional and personal relationships that exist in a small town, the web of influence and mutual backscratching that can skew policy and shape sweetheart deals.

As he kept reminding the board, Dan Russell belongs to a family that's lived in Alamosa for four generations; he's a graduate of Alamosa High School and Adams State, a respected local businessman and public official. Of the ten Keep Polston Public plaintiffs, only Danny Ledonne is an Alamosa native. Several of the others have lived there for fifteen, twenty or thirty years, but in the eyes of some natives, they are still newcomers, outliers — possibly even hippies from Crestone. Given a choice between two very different futures for the property, the board chose the known quantity.

Months later, Ledonne is still wrapping his head around the idea that his former elementary school, the place where he filmed all that gardening magic, is slated to be a stable for Winnebagos.

"I think Russell's RV resort is a great idea — for 1955," he says. "It's based on disposable income through tourism and a number of resources that continue to cost more, and I don't think that's a very recession-proof model. One reason I moved back to the valley is that I saw a lot of resilience coming from local communities that were able to support themselves. This model where you get your salad from 3,000 miles away is ending. We should really start thinking about how we build our infrastructure to be more self-sustaining, and that's why the healthy living park is a great idea for 2013."

***********

The school board concluded its sale of the Polston property to Russell on July 2, a month earlier than anticipated. The Keep Polston Public leaders promptly filed a lawsuit against the board, the school district and Russell, claiming that the open-meeting law had been violated and that the board had illegally provided a gift to a private entity by selling the property for $250,000 less than its appraised value.

The KPP plaintiffs soon obtained a temporary order halting work that Russell had begun on the property, including removing an acre of topsoil for a parking lot. In public meetings, Russell indicated that he'd be willing to give some of the topsoil to the "garden people," but he also complained in an affidavit that the plaintiffs were interfering with his plan to help finance construction on the property by selling the topsoil to landscapers; by his estimate, the alluvial topsoil is worth between $30,000 and $45,000 an acre.

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