Longform

How Alamosa's garden plot got paved over

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Even though Russell's offer was substantially lower, boardmembers seemed to have a preference for a "cash up front" deal, rather than waiting months for TPL to line up its grants. (Russell would later disclose that he'd obtained a $495,000 loan from a local bank at advantageous terms, which meant he only had to present 1 percent of the purchase price from his own funds at closing.) But many of the board's objections to the TPL plan seemed to be gross distortions. The funding would take time, but the prospects for such funding were hardly "pie-in-the-sky." Title in the property would be held by the city or county, not La Puente or any other nonprofit. The concept was not simply a garden but a vast array of amenities, including several for-profit enterprises, such as the restaurant and commercial kitchen, that were designed to be self-supporting and defray maintenance costs.

Tim Wohlgenant, the Colorado state director for TPL, says concerns about the long-term viability of the project would have been addressed as different elements were implemented over several years: "That was something we were just going to have to work out over time. It was not going to be an easy project. There were a lot of moving parts."

Wohlgenant says his organization typically has a piece of property under contract before granters will consider a request for funding, leaving a gap of several months before the closing can occur. "There aren't any great examples around the country of projects like this," he observes. "This would have been cutting-edge — several nonprofits partnering not only to create a public-access park but a community food-distribution system. That's why we needed a year [to secure funding]. But if you want to do something cutting-edge, you have to take a risk. It would really take a partnership, and the school board wasn't ready to do that."

It wasn't exactly a surprise to learn that the board was wary of such a partnership. But what the Keep Polston Public group found most startling about the recordings was the extent to which a private citizen had played a central role in the sale discussions. Preston Porter runs a real-estate company in Alamosa and represented the school district on the recent sales of several properties, including Polston. In the executive sessions, he describes the healthy living park as "sort of a crap shoot," a project that "has about a 20 percent chance of happening." He complains that TPL had suggested that he forgo part of his commission to make the deal more viable — a common request in public-land deals, Wohlgenant says — and warns the board that the group would be "hitting everybody up" for funds.

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.

"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.

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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