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Salida residents are slated to receive a gift in time for Christmas; the non-profit board of directors of the Salida Natural Resource Center Development Corporation voted unanimously on Dec. 12, via Resolution 2018-01, to give the NRCDC board back to the city of Salida. The move returns the NRCDC, along with its assets and liabilities, to a city that divested itself of what some council members at the time, referred to as a “gigantic liability.” The move returns to Salida nearly 100 acres of city land, now owned free and clear, that can be used for the benefit of the people of Salida who, the NRCDC board hopes, will have a voice in determining its best use.

“I am glad that the board was able to accomplish what we promised the citizens of Salida that we would do,” said NRCDC President, Ron Mazzeo. “We worked together for a single goal: that was to save the land for the citizens of Salida.”

The NRCDC resolution is contingent upon adoption of Resolution 2018-53 by the city of Salida, which will accept the NRCDC board with all assets and liabilities, shift three alternate board members to full board positions and accept the resignation of the five board members who have overseen the transition. Salida Mayor P.T. Wood, and Council Members Mike Bowers and Dan Shore have been appointed as alternative NRCDC board members. They will become full board members upon the approval next Tuesday, Dec. 18, of the city’s companion resolution accepting the NRCDC board, assets, and liabilities.

The surprise move was not foreseen only two years ago when the previous Salida city council and administration had sought to fire-sale to the lowest bidder, the NRCDC’s asset known as the Vandaveer Ranch, purchased by Salida in 2004. To push that through, they attempted to remove the NRDC board, and the NRCDC board filed a temporary restraining order in District 11 court. Along the way the city reported itself over the Vandaveer issue to the state of Colorado, for what turned out to be a non-existent violation of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. In a jaw-dropping December, 2016 council meeting on the eve of the permanent injunction hearing, the city washed its hands of it altogether and the NRCDC dropped the suit. This was done because the holder of the note (High Country Bank) was prepared to hold the NRCDC in default if there was a change in management; in other words, if the NRCDC board was fired. At that time the city reminded residents that it had initially bought the land for the water rights, which had been stripped from the land for municipal use.

The moved forced the NRCDC to again become its own nonprofit; a 501(c)(3). (The city had held a 501 nonprofit 63-20 status for the NRCDC from November, 2009 to November, 2014.) Through dogged determination, the NRCDC board of Mazzeo, Treasurer Jim McConaghy, Secretary Dan Tibbitts, joined by Peter Simonson and Chuck Rose, managed to do what some termed impossible. The volunteer board managed the liabilities, found buyers, and closed land sales, selling enough land to pay off the more than $4 million loan to High Country Bank (which had invested to carry the loan after Collegiate Peaks Bank stepped back from their original construction loans for the Forest Service Building). They addressed issues like the infringement on the Palmer Street right-of-way that is preventing them from completing a small public park on the land that includes wetlands, along the north side of the South Arkansas River.

“I hope that going forward with council that the Palmer St. easement is straightened out to the property’s advantage,” said Simonson. “It’s of primary importance and that can’t be forgotten. Council will have to make that decision, but there can’t be any pressure brought to make some sort of trade. On this board I am amazed and gratified that everyone worked toward a single objective and we have reached this conclusion.”

Mazzeo said he’s proud of the past few years of hard work put in by the all-volunteer board, who received no remuneration for their efforts to protect the Vandaveer parcel “from those who wanted to dump it.” He added that right from the start, working through “the false TABOR issue,” the board was completely unified. “I appreciate everything this board has done to reach this point. It’s been a pleasure working with you and I’m glad we accomplished what we set out to accomplish.”

Known historically as the Vandaveer Ranch, the property was acquired by the city of Salida in 2004 for its water rights. Through a series of financial twists and turns, the property was stripped of its water, identified for development potential, and acquired several million dollars in debt when it became collateral for the construction of the Forest Service Building. The actions of the majority on the prior city council sought to dump the land and ended up by dumping the NRCDC.

With the debts paid off and a one hundred acre parcel in hand, the NRCDC board said it is time for the next step. “It is consistent with the bylaws and the development agreement that this be done for the citizens of Salida,” said Rose, a former Mayor of Salida early in the saga of the Vandaveer Ranch property. “The only condition was to operate for the benefit of the citizens of Salida. They paid for this and it needs to be returned to them and that’s what we’re doing.”

Mazzeo, for his part, is proud and hopeful. “I’ve been on the board longer than anybody. I can tell you this (giving the land back to the people) feels great. There were so many different ways this land could have been abused, and that didn’t happen,” said Mazzeo. “It feels so great to turn it back to the citizens. Now ideas can start to group together. People can inspire others and the people get to decide how to make the best use of this land.”