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UBC Farm: Why they aren’t taking a referendum question to students this March

Posted By Brendon Goodmurphy On March 1, 2008 @ 9:27 pm In Investigative | Comments Disabled

[1] Most students know by now that the future of the UBC Farm is shrouded in uncertainty and controversy. This year strong student supporters of the Farm (particularly Friends of the Farm), wanted to hold a referendum question asking students to increase their student fees to support the farm’s programs and development. The hope was that a passed referendum would show UBC just how much the community supports the farm, and would help secure the farm’s future. But the current political situation within UBC and the region has made some supporters of the referendum question if now is really the right time.

Find out why behind the jump…

A brief history of the UBC Farm:

When UBC first decided to build market housing on campus, they ran into some concerns and push-back from the community (students, faculty, staff, residents in Vancouver and the UEL). So, the GVRD stepped in and said that there would be some regulations and guidelines for how UBC could develop that market housing community. Those rules were all outlined in the Official Community Plan (OCP). Of course, the Farm sits in the middle of prime land that the University ultimately wants to sell to developers. After public outcry over the farm in the development of the OCP, the farm was slated for “future housing reserves” – meaning that they weren’t going to develop housing there right away, but it would be set aside, and we would come back to it later to make a decision (that date is supposed to be 2012).

Of course, this stamp of “future housing reserves” also gave UBC an excuse to not invest in the Farm, and refuse to help build its research capacity and refuse to see its value as a community amenity. In fact, when some market housing residents worked with the farm to create a community garden, UBC denied the proposal and said it wasn’t allowed! UBC has been actively impeding any development of the farm for many years, so that they can more easily deny the farm’s importance in 2012 when the issue is up for consideration.

The current situation:

To understand the current situation, you have to understand some local politics. UBC would like to make changes to the South Campus Neighbourhood Plan – they would like to densify the neighbourhood (add more units, make more money). This requires a change to the OCP, which requires approval from the GVRD.

However, the community has some allies in the GVRD who have an interest in a) preserving the farm, and b) seeing UBC become part of the City of Vancouver. Both of these fit into policies that the GVRD already has (for the farm, they are worried about food security and how quickly farmland in the region is being depleted, for governance, they GVRD would like all electoral areas to become part of a municipality). Therefore, some elected officials at the GVRD were saying to UBC: “We’ll let you densify the South Campus Neighbourhood, if you promise to deal with the farm issue and do a governance review.”

Well, UBC doesn’t really like the prospect of being told what to do by the GVRD when it comes to the Farm or governance, so at the most recent Board of Governors meeting, UBC decided not to pursue the South Campus Neighbourhood densification – for now…

But to appease the GVRD, UBC also said that they are going to deal with the farm issue and the governance review right now. I told the GVRD at a recent meeting that I didn’t really believe UBC’s commitment to dealing with the governance issue – I genuinely believe they are dragging their feet, they have no interest . And the farm issue is going to be dealt with through the Vancouver Campus Plan…this is where the concerns from Friends of the Farm comes from.

Hidden motives:

Nancy Knight, UBC’s Associate VP Campus & Community Planning, has decided to ‘deal with the farm issue’ through the Vancouver Campus Planning process. That may sound like a good idea at first, but its much more complex than it seems.

The Campus Plan process is an institutional planning process, meaning UBC has complete control over that process, meaning the GVRD has no say in what decisions are made. Thus, when the farm gets addressed through the Campus Plan, we lose some really powerful allies in the GVRD who could put a lot more public pressure on UBC to “do the right thing.” For now, we as students and as members of the University community have to flood the Campus Planning process in order to save the farm. Of course, we all know that UBC isn’t that great at listening to students, and is quite selective about what it hears in consultation processes.

The point is that if the farm review is part of any OCP changes, then the broader community, including the GVRD, and the UNA residents have some sort of say in what happens to the farm. If it’s a Campus Plan process, then UBC gets the ultimate say, and the GVRD really has power to interfere. The Campus Plan is about institutional spaces – aka, learning and research spaces. Taking care of the farm through the campus plan process conveniently means that UBC can look at it primarily for its research value, and thus it’s easier justifying that it move to the bio sciences research area – the same amount of research can occur no matter where its located.

Now add to this the fact that Nancy Knight and the team at Campus & Community Planning have gotten external consultants to come in and review the “potential” of the farm. These consultants were chosen without letting the farm or the faculty of Land and Food Systems know, and it has mostly been all behind closed doors. Nancy Knight wants to have these consultants come back and say: “the Farm is very valuable, but they only need half the land and could probably move to the Bio-Sciences research area and still do the same great work.” Perhaps she sees this as some sort of compromise between the Board’s agenda to maximize the $250 million that can be made off of that area, while still preserving some sense of a farm for the community.

As long as the Farm issue is dealt with through the Campus Plan, the result is going to be cutting the area by at least half, or moving it way down to the bottom of campus in a very remote and inconvenient location, or both.

The other thing to consider, is this process to deal with the farm through the Campus Plan is only looking at the farm from a research-value standpoint, and not from a community amenity standpoint. The Farm is so much more than a research facility, it’s a place that brings students and residents and researchers and learning all together in one place. This is more than just an institutional facility, it’s a community facility, and the community should have a much greater say about its future.

Canceling the Farm Referendum

I told the Friends of the Farm that it was a big mistake to back down from the referendum now. The concern is that the political situation is too tense right now to take the risk. I say that a referendum is always going to be extremely risky. The only reason there are more backroom deals being made about the farm right now is because UBC is facing a lot of pressure from the GVRD, students and the community-at-large to save the farm. As long as UBC is facing pressure on the Farm, they are going to push back, and push back hard. The farm lands are worth over $250 million dollars in Endowment revenue. We’re up against a huge beast, and that is never going to change.

But, if we as students could come to the table and say “students care about the farm so much that we are willing to pay out of our own pockets to develop the farm’s capacity” then we’re in a really strong negotiating position. Don’t forget, it’s UBC who has been financially neglecting and starving the farm for years, and its students who are stepping up and footing the bill.

If the referendum were to fail, then it would be a tragedy. But, as far as I’m concerned, certain people within the University are always going to misconstrue the evidence and use any referendum outcome against us. But there are also a significant number of people in the University who will take a passed referendum seriously, and that will be way more powerful than the few who discredit it.

The Farm needs a student movement behind it right now, and there is nothing better to get a student movement started than through a “Save the Farm referendum campaign.” Getting hundreds of students around campus, handing out pamphlets and saying “UBC is trying to take away our farm, we can’t let that happen” – what better way to start a genuine student-movement. That’s something almost all students can say yes to.

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