Alamosa "healthy living park" rises again

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The battle over the sale of a former school property in Alamosa -- which deeply divided the town last summer, pitting advocates for a "healthy living park" against backers of a private, high-end RV resort -- appears to have reached an unexpected resolution. A settlement in a lawsuit over the sale stipulates that the park group can purchase the property from the RV developer for $900,000, thereby keeping the land public and heading off a proposed land swap that would have privatized city-owned ranch land north of the site.

Supporters of the Rio Grande Healthy Living Park, which include the San Luis Valley Local Foods Coalition and the Trust for Public Land, have four months to raise the purchase amount. If the deal goes through, it will reinforce critics' claims that the Alamosa School Board badly undervalued the former Polston Elementary School property when it agreed to sell the site to Dan Russell, the county's elected land surveyor, for $500,000 last spring.

As I reported in "The Secret Garden" last year, board members plunged ahead with that deal despite ongoing discussions with the park group, which was seeking time to raise the full appraised value of the property, $755,000. They envisioned the site, which sits on prime topsoil on the banks of the Rio Grande and just across the river from the city's largest park, as the future home of a botanical garden, an all-weather clamshell 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, as well as 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.

The board's decision to sell the land to Russell for an RV park instead, for a third less than the competing group's offer, was never publicly explained. But 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 Trust for Public Land's ability to raise the purchase price, thought an RV park would be a better generator of taxes and tourism, and referred to the park supporters as "a bunch of hippies from Crestone."

In a document filed last month, the park supporters agree to drop their lawsuit in exchange for the chance to buy the property for $900,000, $145,000 more than they offered last year. Filmmaker and professor Danny Ledonne, one of the "healthy living park" enthusiasts, notes that his group has only until June 27 to come up with the funds. "It's certainly a challenge," he says. "But we're in a stronger position now, with more supporters than we had when this started."

If the sale happens, it will be a tidy profit for Russell, who also reserves the right to remove up to 500 cubic yards of the land's rich topsoil. (Ledonne says that provision was made because Russell had pledged to donate some already excavated topsoil to a gardening project run by the local Boys and Girls clubs.) But it will also put to rest a land swap Russell had sought with the city that would have turned over a portion of city-owned ranch land to his development in exchange for restoring public access to certain trails on the Polston site.

"We evaluated a range of possible options," Ledonne says. "If we fail to raise the $900,000, then the school board was right all along. But now we have the opportunity to do what we said we would do."

Ledonne adds that the Trust for Public Lands is "still very interested in developing this project" and that tax-deductible contributions to the park purchase will be accepted on the San Luis Valley Local Foods Coalition website.

More from our Follow That Story archive circa December 31, 2014: "Hentzell Park: Court rejects appeal of land swap."

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