Longform

How Alamosa's garden plot got paved over

Page 2 of 8

Polston's prime location, near the intersection of state highway 17 (which heads north to Great Sand Dunes National Park) and U.S. 160, the main east-west highway across the valley, made it particularly attractive for commercial development. In his remarks to the board, Russell had scorned the idea of wasting the site on a "community garden" and stressed that his venture would generate tax revenues for the county.

Frost was shocked — not so much by Russell's proposal, but by the fact that no one at the school board had bothered to inform the healthy living park backers of its existence, despite months of discussions about the Polston property. Russell's offer had apparently been in the works for some time but hadn't been made public before.

A week later, Frost and other supporters, wearing green clothing and stickers that declared, "The healthy living park loves our schools," turned out in force for the board's vote on the sale of Polston. TPL project manager Wade Shelton fielded questions from boardmembers about the financing of his group's proposal, stressed the positive impact it would have on the community and nearby property values, and predicted that the trailblazing venture "will generate national attention and increase tourism." Russell presented his case for an RV resort that, by his calculations, would pump millions of tourist dollars annually into the local economy.

The board then went into executive session, closing its discussion of both proposals to the public. When the public meeting resumed, there was no debate over the merits of each offer, just the obligatory comments about this being a tough decision and the terrific job both sides had done in their presentations. The only sour note came from board vice-president Neil Hammer, the manager of a local radio station. "One of my biggest concerns is the difference in price between the two," he said, shortly before the vote was called. "Two hundred fifty thousand dollars buys a lot of computers and school supplies."

Hammer's observation puzzled audience member Aaron Miltenberger. "Was Mr. Russell's price $250,000 more than the TPL price?" he asked.

"No," Hammer replied. "Less."

And with that, the board voted 6-1 to accept Russell's offer of $500,000 for the Polston property. Hammer cast the only dissenting vote.

Frost was stunned. The board had decided to sell Polston to a private developer for a third less than its appraised value, a quarter of a million dollars less than the Trust for Public Land was offering. What just happened?

Over the past six months, plenty of folks in Alamosa have been asking the same question. Several of them — not just the park enthusiasts, but others concerned about transparency in local government — formed a group called Keep Polston Public. They soon raised more than $30,000 to hire attorneys, intent on challenging the sale process in court and finding out what had gone on during the board's frequent executive sessions, which they believed were conducted improperly.

The controversial land deal has been a divisive issue in this town of 9,000, fueling a steady stream of impassioned letters and editorials in the newspaper about clueless newcomers and deplorable old-boy networks. It has generated debate about whether an RV park can be a true engine of economic development or if too many locals suffer from a "nonprofit mentality." It's resulted in the ten Keep Polston Public plaintiffs being banned from the formerly public trails on the property and led to a testy encounter between Russell and one of his most vocal critics.

Along the way, the school board has been compelled to release tapes detailing much of the hush-hush deliberation that prompted the board to approve Russell's offer. For those supporting the park proposal, the recordings have been a bitter education in how the public's business really gets done — behind closed doors.

"This went way beyond the park," says farmer Trudi Kretsinger, one of the plaintiffs in the Keep Polston Public litigation. "It was like unpeeling an onion. A really bad onion."

***********

A high desert girded by mountains on three sides, the San Luis Valley has never been the easiest place to raise crops of any kind. The growing season is a brutally short ninety days. Average rainfall hovers around seven inches a year. The Great Sand Dunes hug the flanks of the Sangre de Cristo range, a constant reminder that this is arid and formidable country.

Perhaps because of its harsh conditions, the valley has been a cradle of innovative farming practices, dating back to the Hispanic settlers who started arriving in the 1840s. Today most of the old family farms and ranches have been subsumed by large potato or alfalfa operations, but a respect for locally raised produce and meats is as acute here as in any California foodie haven. Alamosa has had a community greenhouse and a farmers' market for decades, long before such offerings became standard in larger cities.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast