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Audience heated at possible land use

Staff Writer

Published: Friday, April 20, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 15:02

Master Plan

Cameron Johnson

The crowd that attended the 2012 Campus Master Plan Update forum on Tuesday, April 17 appeared to be a calm and quiet one; that is, until attendees had the opportunity to address the use of the land that houses the equine facilities, among other buildings.

Students, town residents, and professors alike sat politely through an administrative presentation. When the floor opened up to discussion, however, residents and students found their voices. And they were not happy. 

Attendees were particularly agitated in response to one component of the plan, which includes public private ventures and the development of much of the land west along Main Street, near Route 4, as well as the possibility of constructing a research park, hotel, and other mixed-use development. The relocation of the equine facilities was also a concern. 

During the discussion portion, people said that this would “cheapen the campus,” that it is a “disturbing loss of identity,” “phenomenally short-sighted,” and would be “selling out.”

One student asked, “How is development preserving the feel of a small, New England liberal arts college?”

Alina Harris, a senior majoring in sustainable agriculture, commented that she has lived in Durham all of her life, and that she has watched the increasing development and loss of the skyline. UNH, she said, did not used to be a “stain” on the town. 

The idea that large retail vendors could potentially impede on the campus and its agricultural land, facilities and programs was disturbing to many. After all, many said, UNH did begin as an agricultural college.

One student pointed out that a “dairy farm will never co-exist next to a strip mall,” and another stated that students cannot learn agriculture from a textbook. 

Graduate student Chris Dorich agreed. 

“I have always felt first and foremost that the best education comes from hands-on experiences. Having these agricultural fields and spaces provides an amazing opportunity for students at UNH and are essential to the feel, atmosphere, and education at UNH,” Dorich said. “Enough cuts have already happened to these programs, and it is time alternatives are found for helping close thebudget.” 

The presenters pointed out to the crowd that UNH would very carefully monitor the construction of any potential new facilities, including the materials used and the building dimensions. In addition, building would only occur on plots of land opposite from open fields and on ground-leased property. 

One of the presenters, Douglas Bencks, university architect and director of campus planning, said that all of the projects mentioned were only potential blueprints, and also that the discussion of altering or relocating the dairy, equine and agricultural facilities was already occurring eight years ago, and was present in the 2004 Master Plan. Planners and administration agreed that it is important to preserve the atmosphere and character of the campus, but also pointed out that, fiscally, UNH is very constrained.

The citizens and students that were present seemed to be in approval of plans for the construction of a new Center for the Arts, but were unmoved by reassurances that there would be few negative consequences to developing the campus.

Paul Chamberlain, assistant vice president for energy and campus development, said that nothing in the plan is definite at this time. 

“Despite there being ‘nothing in the plan that is definite,’ it is clear that destruction of farmland is being considered. That alone should raise eyebrows. There are many significant answers yet to be given in response to the lack of consideration for agricultural programs that have been slowly but surely marginalized by the university in the past few decades,” Evan Girard, an environmental and natural resource economics major, said. 

 “We’re sending a message that retail and development is more important than academics or sustainability,” one senior said. Another agreed, saying, “We are a sustainable university, and pride ourselves on this. What are we saying about sustainability if we offer land to retail?” 

Many past and present members of the equestrian program were in attendance as well, and an alumna stated, “To say the equine program and retail could be compatible is ignorant.” She went on to comment that the program is nationally renowned, and that moving the facilities would have an irrevocable effect. 

There will be another forum on Tuesday, April 24, from 12:40-2 p.m. in the Strafford Room of the Memorial Union Building. 

“This is a really wonderful opportunity for us young people to be civically engaged to better understand this dynamic between people and the land, this conundrum in which we have to weigh the benefits of short-term, audacious methods of economic growth against weakened long-term social, environmental, and economic sustainability of our region,” Girard said. 

After speaking with constituent groups, the Campus Master Plan and Steering committees will present their recommendations to President Huddleston this summer and, in the fall, the Campus Master Plan Update will be presented to the University System of New Hampshire Board of Trustees for approval. 

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