Alamosa "healthy living park" moves ahead, RV park nixed

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Backers of a proposed "healthy living park" in Alamosa, who saw their efforts last year to acquire former school property in a prime location frustrated by a controversial deal that put the property in the hands of an RV park developer for substantially less than its appraised value, have settled a lawsuit over the transaction and managed to purchase the property from the developer. The transaction offers the prospect that an agricultural-themed community park will some day be a reality on the 38-acre site.

See also: How Alamosa's garden plot got paved over

The sale of the Polston property last year, which sits on prime topsoil adjacent to the Rio Grande and next to Alamosa's largest park, deeply divided the town. Several area nonprofits and community activists had supported a plan to raise the $755,000 appraised value of the property in order to prevent private development. The Keep Polston Public coalition envisioned connecting the trails on the property to the park system and making Polston the future home of a botanical garden, an all-weather clam-shell amphitheater for live music and other amenities that could appeal to tourists, as well as a place for small farm plots that could help struggling families and train aspiring growers in sustainable methods; a production greenhouse that could supply produce to valley schools and to a farm-fresh restaurant on the site; a commercial kitchen, available to small-batch bakers and chefs trying to launch their own micro-businesses; and much more.

But many in the local business community agreed with the Alamosa School Board's decision to sell the land to Dan Russell, the county's elected land surveyor, for $500,000, arguing that Alamosa needed the tax revenue to be generated by a high-end RV resort that Russell planned to build. Recordings of closed-door meetings, later released in the course of the lawsuit filed by the park group against the school district, revealed that school officials had reservations about the nonprofit groups' ability to raise the purchase price and referred to the park supporters as "a bunch of hippies from Crestone."

Mediation efforts ultimately led to an agreement by Russell to sell the property to the park backers for $900,000 -- a significant increase over what he paid for it and a dramatic demonstration that the school board had badly undervalued the property. Facing a tight deadline at the end of June, the park supporters raised $375,000 through local donations in four months and secured a bridge loan from private lenders for another $700,000.

Because the actual buyer, The Trust for Public Land, is prohibited from paying more than the appraised value of the property, the lawsuit plaintiffs contributed the additional $150,000 in funds so that an LLC could buy the land at Russell's price and then sell it to TPL for $750,000. "That extra money is basically a legacy donation to keep the property from being developed," says Renee Mackey, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

The additional funds beyond the purchase price will go toward management and development of the project, under the direction of the San Luis Valley Local Foods Coalition. Wade Shelton, a project manager with The Trust for Public Land's Colorado office, says he expects the bridge loan to be paid off over the next three years through a combination of grant funds and local fundraising efforts.

"We're really halfway through this," Shelton explains. "We've still got a lot of work to do. Our hope is we can do all of this without any tax dollars."

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