Alexandra Piptone reads the Keep Polston Public letter to the Alamosa Board of Education on Monday night.
Courier photo by Lauren Krizansky
Courier staff writer
ALAMOSA — Keep Polston Public (KPP) filed a lawsuit against the Alamosa Board of Education (ABOE) on Tuesday after making one final appeal to stop the Polston property sale to Dan Russell during Monday night’s special meeting.
The KPP plaintiffs, Renee Mackey, Patrick O’Neill, Trudi Krestsinger, Danny LeDonne, Julie Mordecai, Terry McClaughry, Jan Oen, Karen Lemke, Mandy Pittman and William Brinton, filed a complaint for injunctive and declaratory relief in Alamosa District Court on Tuesday afternoon against the ABOE, the Alamosa School District, the Alamosa School District Capital Finance Corporation and Russell, according to a court document.
The lawsuit challenges the ABOE May 9 decision to sell the property to Russell for a “below market $500,000 offer from Mr. Russell despite the fact that the Trust for Public Land (TLP), working with the Plaintiffs and others in the community, had presented an Option Agreement to purchase the Polston property for its appraised value of $750,000 in order to construct a Healthy Living Park for the community.”
The plaintiffs allege the ABOE is in violation of Colorado Open Meeting Laws, Colorado Constitution Article XI, Section 2, and the school board act; in breach of fiduciary duty; and the group seeks declaratory judgment and preliminary and permanent injunctive relief, according to the document.
“We are confident that the allegations in the Plaintiff’s Complaint are groundless and without merit,” said the ABOE in a Tuesday night press release. “We have consistently adhered to Colorado Open Meetings Law and the Constitution, remaining as transparent as possible while still effectively conducting the business of the school district. We take our responsibility as guardians over taxpayer dollars very seriously and try to stretch them as far as possible for the children’s education.”
The ABOE press release continued, “Mr. Russell presented us with the best offer we had seen, it was not conditional on obtaining financing and allowed for a reasonable closing date. Rather than sit on the property for who knows how long and watch this deal pass us by, we chose to accept what we considered a secure and fair offer, remembering the adage that ‘a bird in hand is better than two in the bush’.”
During the special Monday night board meeting, where the at-that-time-pending lawsuit was announced, the ABOE approved the resolution to sell to Russell six to one with ABOE Official Neil Hammer voting no.
“I don’t feel the school district is in the business of subsidizing private business,” Hammer said. “This is not in the best interest of the school district. That is not a correct statement.”
The KPP alleged the sale violates Article XI, Section 2 of the Colorado Constitution in a letter read aloud and addressed to ABOE Attorney Gordon Bosa from KKP Counsel Edmund Frost and dated June 24.
“The constitutional prohibition against donations and grants is absolute and admits only a very limited ‘public purpose’ exception, which we might add does not include speculative ventures replete with contingencies and speculative hopes, such as those underlying the Board’s de facto donation to Russell,” the letter stated.
The KPP also claimed the ABOE is in violation of failing to publicly disclose “a formal Board finding that the Polston Tract is not needed for any purpose authorized by law,” invalidating the sale.
In addition, the KPP stated the ABOE “failed to adequately analyze its speculative declaration and presumption that somehow there would be a tax revenue benefit to the school district by selling the Polston Tract to Russell. There was likewise no adequate analysis of the economic benefit or land use advantage to the public by selling Polston to Russell.”
The letter read much like Tuesday’s lawsuit, accusing the ABOE of harboring contract information, entertaining speakers not recognized on an agenda, violating open records laws and failure to notify the public and holding meetings at inconvenient times, insulting the portion of the community that wants to see the property stay in education.
“The Board members have fiduciary duties to its students and the school district,” the KPP stated. “It has no responsibility to the business community, economic development boosters or land use planners... the Board transgressed its legal and fiduciary duties when it alienated the Polston Tract... sacrificed the financial interests of its students and the school district by embracing the banner of economic development.”
The group also accused ABOE members of having familiar relationships with Russell that lent to a tainted decision making process.
Economics vs Agriculture
In May, the ABOE in a six to one vote moved to sell Russell the 38-acre prime farming property with water rights to develop an RV park for $500,000 although it was recently appraised for $755,000. The Trust for Public Lands (TPL), a California-based non-profit public benefit corporation representing the San Luis Valley Local Foods Coalition, the umbrella organization behind KPP and the healthy living park, split the appraisal fee with the district, a product of ongoing negotiations.
The district has permitted over a decade of gardening tradition to continue despite vacating the property, and in 2010 TPL expressed interest. In the spring of 2012, the ABOE signed a letter of intent with the group, which did not legally bind them to a sale.
“We never have received a bona fide offer from TPL to purchase the Polston property, only discussions about what might take place if they get their funding in order sometime in the future,” the ABOE press release said. “These type of discussions have been going on for over two years without results and TPL’s ability to obtain grant money for any purchase price was, in our opinion, speculative at best.”
TLP wanted to acquire the property to develop the healthy living park based on similar projects across the state and nationwide. The park would have provided access to the Alamosa Ranch via bike and walking trails. It would have also potentially included quarter acre farm plots to encourage new farmer development; community gardens and greenhouses; a multi-purpose building with possible kitchen space, classrooms and a food distribution warehouse; outdoor events space; amphitheater; theme gardens; outdoor classroom space; picnic tables; a wetlands preservation site; a traditional water uses education site; a Sites of the San Luis Valley playground; and exercise stations.
TPL would have made the proposed healthy living park a reality with grant dollars from the Colorado Health Foundation and Great Outdoors Colorado in addition to securing some private funding from both inside and outside the Valley.
According to Russell’s calculations, his RV resort plan will generate $50,000 in property taxes annually in addition to upwards of $2 million locally spent tourist dollars, which will directly benefit the school district.
Russell’s property interest is founded in improving Alamosa’s economic state through providing a “destination” and access to the preexisting Alamosa Ranch/Cole Park area through an expanded parking area and RV resort. He said such a development, located on the corner of Highway 17 and Highway 160, would allow people immediate opportunities to explore the city and its natural settings while raising the tax base.
His preliminary plans include creating 300 parking spaces near Cole Park’s Rio Grande footbridge and roughly 200 RV lots. They also include a land exchange with the City of Alamosa, a private fishing pond, the ability for golfers to drive their carts to Cattails and solutions to impending challenges from the East Alamosa Water and Sanitation District that include tap fees.
Less than a month before the ABOE decided to sell to Russell, the ABOE made a motion to continue talks with TPL, which have ceased, but the community has not silenced its voice.
Since the decision, the KPP group has made noise. They created a blog page, staged booths and addressed the ABOE numerous times including Monday night.
“KPP and supporters of the Park have formulated a principled strategy aimed at nullification of the Board’s flawed decision-making process and quieting the disharmony cast upon the community by the Board’s heedless and illegal decision,” the KPP stated. “The Board appears to be caught on the horns of a dilemma of its own creation.”
Russell, however, maintained the project was moving in a promising direction and said that he has tried to come to some sort of agreement with KPP, and is still open to the possibility.
“Everything looks very promising,” he said in response to the KPP’s statements. “The economic impact to the community is better than we proposed... I haven’t misled anybody... We will make an attractive resort for the community.”
Several others, both for and against, also commented on the sale Monday night.
“What you gave to Dan Russell could be used to fill the educational needs of our students,” said Adams State University remedial studies teacher Diana Jones.
Local Alamosa rancher Alan Simpson, who had secured a spot on the evening’s agenda, refocused the ABOE’s attention on the importance of agricultural education in the Valley.
“Why can’t we continue that learning process through the agriculture department?” Simpson asked about the property that was originally deeded to the school district for educational purposes. “I can just see them kids competing against one another to grow the tallest corn or the most potatoes ... The food could go back into the school.”
He also mentioned the positive role agriculture could play in the lives of the elderly, the handicapped, the criminal and the homeless.
“It is a great learning facility,” Simpson said. “There is not a better place than that... You can’t go wrong. Support agriculture.”
Local business owner Ruthie Brown spoke in support of Russell.
“They will do a great job,” Brown said about the economic possibilities his project brings to Alamosa. “They will make that site beautiful.”
She added, as the unofficial spokesperson for the downtown business community, “We all believe we need something in Alamosa to keep us going.”
The Alamosa city council is set to review Russell’s plans on July 17, and the ABOE is scheduled to close the sale in August.
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Alamosa rancher Alan Simpson appeals to the Alamosa Board of Education on Monday night.
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Alexandra Piptone reads the Keep Polston Public letter to the Alamosa Board of Education on Monday night.
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Dan Russell is named on the Keep Polston Public lawsuit.
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Local business owner Ruthie Brown speaks up in support of the proposed RV park.