Between 1959 and 1977, Western Michigan University (WMU) received gifts of land–the Colony Farm–that had been acquired by the state with tax-payer money several decades earlier. The land came to WMU with a restriction that it was to be kept as open space for public use. The gift and the restriction were mostly the work of two Kalamazoo brothers, Jack and Bob Welborn, who were serving in the state legislature.
In 2009, at the instigation of WMU, claiming that it would soon need to enlarge its BTR Park (Business Technology Research), the Michigan legislature passed, and the governor signed, a bill removing the open space/public use restriction on one parcel of the land, the Colony Farm Orchard. This happened following a long battle that involved an unprecedented outpouring of grass-roots opposition to the action, in the media, at local gatherings, and in letters, phone calls and personal visits to legislators in Lansing.
Now, about 5 years later, WMU is trying to move forward with the invasion, and destruction, of the Colony Farm Orchard for a BTR park expansion, as threatened in 2009.
Some local residents, remembering the long battle and the loss in Lansing, resulting in the removal of the open-space covenant, have concluded that the land must now be developed.
This is not the case. Even though the restriction is gone, WMU is not compelled to expand the BTR park onto this land. The Orchard land is still perfectly available for permanent protection.
It is a fact that the original language of the bill that WMU gave to Kalamazoo Representative Bob Jones to carry to Lansing called not just for removing the open-space restriction, but also for replacing it with a new one. The new one would have required that the land be used exclusively for expanding and improving the BTR Park.
But not even the 2009 Michigan legislature would buy that.
The finished version of the bill had only one restriction–that any “aboriginal antiquities” found on the site belonged to the State.
So, the open space restriction is gone. As far as the law is concerned, WMU can now do whatever it likes with the land. This means that the life of Colony Farm Orchard is in the hands of President John Dunn and the eight members of the WMU Board. Thumbs up or thumbs down.
The president and the board at most universities have a lot of power over property, programs, and positions. Mostly, it seems to me, universities behave pretty decently and not as arbitrarily as they could behave.
One reason is respect for their constituencies–alumni, current and future students, local citizens, faculty–present, past, and potential– patrons of concerts, sports fans, donors of many sorts, and so on down the list of people who are watching and forming opinions.
But I suppose universities may also listen to other constituencies , ones whose interests run more to corporate, mercantile, commercial and political matters, tax-sharing and such, and not so much to things like science, history, or art.
Will the Colony Farm Orchard be developed? The answer depends directly on the president and the board.
It could also be said that the answer depends on who of its constituents WMU chooses to listen to.