By next year, Durango’s only community-led shared garden space, Ohana Kuleana Community Garden, could be gone.
“The future is cloudy,” said Chris Paulson, the garden’s communications director. Actual dark clouds had started to gather Monday afternoon as she stood in the community garden.
Ohana Kuleana opened for its first season in 2013. At the time, Bob Lieb, developer of the city’s first tiny home village, was in a lease-purchase arrangement with La Plata County. He had 10 years to decide if he wanted to purchase the property, Paulson said. In 2020, Lieb bought the 1.2-acre area from the county for about $300,000, she said.
Lieb then tried to sell it to the city of Durango, but the effort did not move forward.
“The City Council rejected their staff’s desire to purchase the garden property, and now the property is listed for sale,” Lieb said in an email to The Durango Herald, declining to comment further. “Sorry, I have to leave it at that for now.”
The La Plata County assessed rate for the community garden, divided into three parcels, is about $555,000. It is listed on the market for $950,000.
Lieb’s asking price for the city was not immediately clear Monday, but Paulson said it was $475,000.
“This could be a fantastic opportunity for multiple homes or even one large estate sized lot for the ultimate in-town location,” the real estate advertisement says.
Ohana Kuleana is flourishing after recent rains. It is nestled behind backyards around 30th Street and East Fifth Avenue, just blocks from the Animas River and next to Riverview Elementary School.
Paulson calls it a “sustainability theme park.”
Over the years, garden members have installed water barrel harvesting and multi-stage composting processes, which provides soil for the garden members.
Butterflies roamed among pollinator perennial plants, squash, zucchini, radishes, spinach and other greens. A food forest berm, a common area growing cherries and raspberries, stretches along one side of the garden. Nearby, community plots are growing garlic and medicinal and culinary herbs.
“I started here in the first year, 2013,” Paulson said. “I didn’t do it for a couple of years, and then I came back. It’s one of those things – you miss it.”
The Garden Project of Southwest Colorado, a nonprofit based in Durango, managed the garden until 2020. After that, the garden members found another nonprofit fiscal agent and about six members took over management of the garden.
Most of the 45 plots are leased to garden members, with six reserved for Riverview Elementary School. About 100 community members plus students regularly use the space, Paulson said.
“I’ve brought over 1,000 kids through here and basically utilized the garden as an educational setting for teaching the science standards I’m responsible for teaching,” said Charlie Love, an elementary science teacher at Riverview Elementary School.
It’s a community based on the joy of watching plants thrive and produce.
“There’s a positive energy and connection with nature here. It’s also a huge learning experience,” said Paulson, who did not grow up gardening. “I’ve been able to learn so much from the people around me.”
Now, Paulson said a Joni Mitchell lyric keeps echoing in her mind: “They paved paradise to put up a parking lot.”
The city’s inaction on the real estate acquisition proposed by Lieb came as a shock, she said.
In late June, the Durango City Council considered the purchase, acquisition, lease or transfer of the Ohana Kuleana Community Garden. Councilors met in a private session, called an executive session. After the session, they announced “no decisions were made” and moved on.
Councilors did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
Yet Lieb was notified the city will not pursue the purchase.
“The potential purchase of your property was discussed in Executive Session with the City Council and the Council decided not to pursue the acquisition,” wrote Cathy Metz, the recently retired Parks and Recreation director, in an email to Lieb.
No decisions can be made in executive session, according to state law.
Dirk Nelson, the city of Durango attorney who was in the private meeting, declined to comment on the email but said the city did not make a decision either way about the garden.
Love was at the garden Monday building a wooden trellis for a “three sisters” garden, which grows corn, beans and squash. It’s part of an experiment in plant symbiosis and a cultural lesson in Native American agricultural practices, he said.
“It’s been a profound impact on a lot of kids for (nine) years now,” Love said. “I want to see that continue benefiting so many youth. As far as ownership goes, what Bob Lieb has done has been incredible as far as getting this thing to where it’s at now. Getting it long-term, sustainable, viable – I think that’s everybody’s goal here.”
To Paulson, the city’s lack of action felt like “a door had been closed.” Some of the garden members felt frustrated by the lack of clarity around the city’s actions, she said.
Losing the property would mean losing the partnership with the school and fewer opportunities for renters and residents without yards to garden.
“We’ll lose that sense of community and that ability to learn together, to foster this awareness and connection with nature,” Paulson said. “I feel pretty sad about it. I feel it’s a real loss.”