Colony Farm Orchard: New documentary film and a response to John Dunn Viewpoint

Matt Clysdale, from his website

Matt Clysdale, from his website

Matt Clysdale, a local film-maker (Animals Among Us), will be screening the first part of a two or more part film about Western Michigan University’s planned conversion of the Colony Farm Orchard open space to Business Park annex.  Here is his announcement.

Greetings everyone,

Please join me this Tuesday at 9 pm on Channel 19 for the
premiere broadcast of  “The Colony Farm Orchard – Part 1:
Here We Go Again”
, a video essay I recently produced on a
controversial, 54 acre piece of property adjacent to Asylum Lake.

The video is the first part in a series examining major issues
surrounding Western Michigan University’s plans to expand
the Business, Technology and Research Park onto the Orchard.

Part 1 explores the tumultuous history of the Orchard, previous
attempts to develop the property, and an earlier attempt to remove the restrictions on the property. Interviews with representatives from WMU, the Asylum Lake Preservation Association, and the Oakland Drive/Winchell Neighborhood Association, as well as former State Senator Jack Welborn and current State Representative Robert Jones, shed light on the inner workings behind this controversial, and necessary, community debate.

Matt Clysdale
HorsePower Pictures

Response to John Dunn Viewpoint

Richard Brewer

After a long silence, President John Dunn of Western Michigan University provided some public commentary on the Colony Farm Orchard by way of a Kalamazoo Gazette Viewpoint on Wednesday 23 September 2009. Following is a response I submitted Sunday to the Gazette.  I tried to keep it close to the 500-word Viewpoint limit the Gazette requests, so there was no space to deal with several other questionable statements.  I will try to address these later.

By mid-July, people were writing letters to the Gazette warning about WMU’s attempt to strip deed restrictions from the Colony Farm Orchard. The restrictions would have to be killed for WMU to expand its BTR park operations onto the Orchard.  The restrictions say WMU “may utilize the property solely for public park, recreation, or open space purposes, except that the legislature, by statute, may authorize Western Michigan University to utilize the property for some other public purpose.”  Last week, Western Michigan University President Dunn wrote a Viewpoint about the Orchard.

It is well that President Dunn has finally spoken up.  Until now the only WMU statements came from subordinates.

The version of Asylum Lake history given by President Dunn will seem strangely light-hearted and his representation of WMU’s role improbably altruistic to anyone who kept track of the bitter controversies of the 1990s-early 2000s.  These came out of an earlier attempt by WMU to turn the Orchard, the University Farm, and part of the Asylum Lake property into a business park.

But then President Dunn was not here during that time; he took office in July 2007.  His knowledge comes from staff, associates, and the WMU Board. I fear they have not given him a full picture of the long  battle–or the dedication it created in those who still fight to protect this special place.

President Dunn states that the Orchard is a logical choice for development because WMU already owns it.  What he neglects to say is that by the restriction, WMU holds it as a public trust–to keep for all of us as open space.

Among several misleading statements, President Dunn claims that the development would be beneficial because it would provide space for retention ponds that would improve water quality in Asylum Lake.  This is a red herring.  There are other places for such ponds, including the old trailer park at the north end of the Orchard.  The WMU Foundation owns this property, and it is unrestricted.  Work on the retention ponds could begin tomorrow.

President Dunn commends the legislators who wrote the original conveyance of the Orchard for recognizing that “community needs could change and included a mechanism to make such needed changes.” Exactly! We have already seen the language: “the legislature, by statute, may authorize Western Michigan University to utilize the property for some other public purpose.” It is just this language that Representative Robert Jones’s bill would remove.

The reason for the Jones-WMU bill is that all of this played out once before, in 1993.  The House passed altered language that would have allowed the Colony Farm Orchard to be used as a research and business park.  When the bill reached the Senate, careful debate led the Senate to conclude that this was not a public use.  They refused to act on the bill, and the door slammed shut on that first misguided effort to turn this property into a business park.

But now a new bill is back, in the Senate Appropriations Committee. If the Senate of 2009 is less wise than the Senate of 1993, the bill may pass and the Colony Farm Orchard will be lost.  Even worse, the legislature will have gone on record that conservation restrictions for the public good are meaningless, to be wiped out whenever they are inconvenient for any group with a powerful constituency.  I emailed Senator Tom George asking him not to allow this. Other citizens unhappy with WMU’s attempt to sell this land bought with taxpayer money to private interests might wish to contact their own senators.

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