Longform

How Alamosa's garden plot got paved over

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"Even if they think we're just dirty hippies, we were offering them $250,000 more," Mackey points out. "There was no way they could turn us down without looking like idiots."

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When Mackey, Oen and others decided to challenge the school board's decision in court, they had little difficulty raising funds or finding allies. As it turned out, there was no shortage of residents who had no direct stake in the healthy living park but believed that the school board had been high-handed and furtive in many of its dealings.

"The school board has a long history of making decisions behind closed doors and not being fully responsible with taxpayer money," says Bill Brinton, a primary-care physician who's lived in the area since 1986 — and is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. "They spend more time in executive sessions than in public meetings. Too much was going on without allowing people to come and listen to what they were deciding."

The board had discussed the Polston property during at least six executive sessions in the weeks leading up to the sale. In the uproar that followed, boardmembers insisted that the sessions had been conducted properly but conceded that they'd failed to provide proper notice about the topics to be discussed in those sessions. In response to claims by the plaintiffs that state open-meeting requirements had been violated, the board agreed to release the recordings of the confidential discussions about Polston — which proved to be cassette tapes, recorded on antiquated equipment and reused over and over. (The tape of a seventh session, held three days before the vote, was completely inaudible, triggering quips about Rose Mary Woods and the famous eighteen-minute gap in the Watergate tapes.)

The tapes were a revelation. While some boardmembers seemed genuinely torn between the two buyers, others had been almost contemptuous of the park proposal from the start — treating it, at best, like a loonbag cause, to be humored only until something serious came along. In particular, board president Bill Van Gieson and member Arlan Van Ry, both military veterans who now work for construction companies, had inveighed heavily against the project.

In a meeting last March — evidently the first time that Russell's interest in the property became known to the board — Van Gieson and Van Ry can be heard agreeing that "this TPL thing" (the park proposal) is "kind of a long shot."

Over the next two months, as the discussion becomes more detailed, their enthusiasm for Russell's RV park is obvious. They seem convinced that the project will stimulate the local economy, while describing the healthy living park as a venture with uncertain financing, a "donation" that will burden the city with ongoing maintenance costs.

"One way to look at it," Van Ry comments at an April meeting, "[Russell] develops this thing, puts in a four- or five-million-dollar RV park, our property taxes may go up and we're going to start making money on it for the school district...compared to donating it to some free-thinking nonprofit, and we'll never get a penny off it for the next hundred years."

"There is a lot to consider," Van Gieson agrees. "It's like Arlan's saying, it could actually generate revenue. Whereas, you know, this garden thing, that's not gonna generate anything.... Just a bunch of hippies from Crestone.... It would be the summer campground for La Puente." He then reminds the board that the school district had already okayed a community garden at another elementary school: "Shit, we gave them property over there at the school."

"They want more money from us to maintain a free piece of property," Van Ry says, drawing laughter from the board.

In subsequent executive sessions, Van Ry again rails against selling the land to a nonprofit: "Do we have any more La Puente free gifts out there?" He jokes about being "worried about marijuana plants being put there" if the garden boosters buy the property.

Van Giesen scoffs at the notion that the healthy living park, with its botanic gardens and trails and local-foods restaurant, would be any kind of tourist draw: "I don't think this garden thing is gonna attract people.... Why would you want to come to Alamosa to see this garden? You can drive all over the valley and see fields."

As the weeks dragged on, the constant carping about the park proposal's reputed drawbacks seems to have swayed members who'd been on the fence. "I'd love to sell that land for 750,000 [dollars], but it's pie-in-the-sky," says board secretary Christine Haslett in one of the final sessions before the vote. "We don't know what that's actually going to look like. That may be an eyesore. It may be something that's started and never finished."

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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