Longform

How Alamosa's garden plot got paved over

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Russell declines to comment about his conversation with Ledonne or other Polston-related matters, citing the still-pending litigation. But he says he's confident that his resort will have a positive impact on his town: "Tourism is an important industry, and I think that Alamosa will benefit from the increase in tourism that this RV project offers."

Last month, both sides went to court over a preliminary-injunction motion filed by Keep Polston Public in an effort to halt the sale and development. No local judge would take the case because of perceived conflicts, so it fell to a visiting senior district judge, Scott Epstein, to sort things out.

Epstein seemed genuinely impressed, both by the "unquestionable merit" of a healthy living park and Russell's "visionary" effort to enhance tourism. He conceded that removing the topsoil would cause irreparable harm to the plaintiffs' hopes for that property. And he scolded the school board for its "fairly shabby treatment" of the park supporters who'd been wooing them for two years, only to be dumped at the altar: "I think it could have been handled so much better, and perhaps without the drama that we now are faced with."

But shabby treatment didn't equate to illegal conduct. Epstein ruled that the plaintiffs hadn't met all the elements required to obtain a preliminary injunction. The board's executive sessions had been irregular, but the crucial vote had been done in public. He said he couldn't reverse the sale at this point and didn't think the plaintiffs would prevail if the case ever went to trial. He ordered the parties to mediation and lifted the temporary order that prevented Russell from removing topsoil or developing the land.

An unsigned editorial in the Valley Courier hailed Epstein's decision as "a victory for free enterprise." The writer lamented, "Unfortunately, sometimes the [San Luis Valley] could be defined as having a nonprofit mentality.... A region that thrives on nonprofits will soon suffer overall." That notion soon brought a flood of letters from park supporters, who said their project had been misunderstood.

"I see these two paradigms," says Karen Lemke, who works with the San Luis Valley Local Foods Coalition. "The old model is one big solution, this savior who comes and saves our community by generating all this tax revenue. Our proposal was, 'Wouldn't it be great to have a hundred people make $10,000 more in their family income?'"

The mediation has not yet been scheduled, but Russell has moved ahead with his annexation and land-swap plans, which have been received well by city officials. The project has the strong support of the downtown business community, many of whom signed letters published in the Valley Courier that carried over 300 names.

Ledonne was not one of those signers. "I would be sad to see the RV resort fail, but I also would be sad to see it succeed," he says. "Is it going to be filled all summer, so that every time I walk or bike along that area I'm going to see some Texan out there, shaving and waving at me? Or is it going to be a black concrete abandoned space? Neither one of those appeal to me."

The Keep Polston Public plaintiffs say they haven't decided yet whether to proceed with further discovery in the case; Oen says she's hopeful that mediation could at least lead to some of the topsoil being used in other gardens around town. Several are now focused on looking for other sites for a potential food-distribution center and maybe even a healthy living park.

After the rumpus over the Polston sale, three local landowners contacted the local-foods coalition to offer other possible sites. None had water rights or topsoil comparable to what was at Polston, but the offers led a few of the park supporters to believe that something good might come out of their battle after all.

"One of my goals was to get people thinking about the local food system, and we have definitely done that," says farmer Kretsinger. "We've started to talk about transparency in government. We've got three commercial kitchens now in the valley, coming online in the next few months. This is huge for us. I think we're going to make a big difference in the economy."

The irony of being portrayed as hippies hasn't been lost on the park supporters. You could pick any of them at random — physician, educator, small-business owner — and just as easily describe them as members of the town's professional class. Luette Frost, who's now lived in Alamosa for almost twelve years, figures it's up to "newcomers" like her to keep challenging the status quo.

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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