Longform

How Alamosa's garden plot got paved over

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Many in the Keep Polston Public group believed that Russell's tax calculations were overly optimistic. In the end, they maintained, the decision wasn't about who could offer the best price or which proposal would be best for Alamosa economically — assuming the school board had any business making that call. It was about the close-knit professional and personal relationships that exist in a small town, the web of influence and mutual backscratching that can skew policy and shape sweetheart deals.

As he kept reminding the board, Dan Russell belongs to a family that's lived in Alamosa for four generations; he's a graduate of Alamosa High School and Adams State, a respected local businessman and public official. Of the ten Keep Polston Public plaintiffs, only Danny Ledonne is an Alamosa native. Several of the others have lived there for fifteen, twenty or thirty years, but in the eyes of some natives, they are still newcomers, outliers — possibly even hippies from Crestone. Given a choice between two very different futures for the property, the board chose the known quantity.

Months later, Ledonne is still wrapping his head around the idea that his former elementary school, the place where he filmed all that gardening magic, is slated to be a stable for Winnebagos.

"I think Russell's RV resort is a great idea — for 1955," he says. "It's based on disposable income through tourism and a number of resources that continue to cost more, and I don't think that's a very recession-proof model. One reason I moved back to the valley is that I saw a lot of resilience coming from local communities that were able to support themselves. This model where you get your salad from 3,000 miles away is ending. We should really start thinking about how we build our infrastructure to be more self-sustaining, and that's why the healthy living park is a great idea for 2013."

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The school board concluded its sale of the Polston property to Russell on July 2, a month earlier than anticipated. The Keep Polston Public leaders promptly filed a lawsuit against the board, the school district and Russell, claiming that the open-meeting law had been violated and that the board had illegally provided a gift to a private entity by selling the property for $250,000 less than its appraised value.

The KPP plaintiffs soon obtained a temporary order halting work that Russell had begun on the property, including removing an acre of topsoil for a parking lot. In public meetings, Russell indicated that he'd be willing to give some of the topsoil to the "garden people," but he also complained in an affidavit that the plaintiffs were interfering with his plan to help finance construction on the property by selling the topsoil to landscapers; by his estimate, the alluvial topsoil is worth between $30,000 and $45,000 an acre.

If Russell's estimate is correct, says agronomist O'Neill, then he could recoup the entire purchase price of the property by scraping and selling off the topsoil in areas of his resort that are simply going to be paved over. "There are probably sixteen or seventeen acres that are going to be scraped away," O'Neill says. "It would be prohibitively expensive to put it back, ever. They sold it at an incredibly low price; I don't know any two ways about it."

The lawsuit and temporary suspension of work on the property didn't improve relations between Russell and the plaintiffs. The developer had agreed to let the Guatemalans harvest their crops this year, and he allowed the public to continue to use the trails that were on his property — except for the people who were suing him. That led to a heated encounter this summer between Russell and Ledonne, who had been heading toward the Guatemalans' garden with his camera to shoot more footage.

"I was walking along the dike, and I saw through the corner of my eye this figure running through the trees," Ledonne recalls. "It was Dan Russell. He just started swearing at me."

According to Ledonne, Russell called him a "little dickhead" and told him to "get the fuck off my property." He then called police to report a trespasser as Ledonne left, banished from the garden he'd been filming for years.

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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