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Pacific Spirit construction site under construction on Birney Avenue at Westbrook Mall, UBC, in Vancouver, BC, February 7, 2010.Laura Leyshon For The Globe and Mail

The University of B.C. has always been like a small, separate principality barely attached to Vancouver, out on the western tip of the peninsula and separated from the city by thick forest.

Now the university will be even more like a separate kingdom, if legislation introduced by the province this week that removes UBC from any oversight by the regional authority goes through.

That will put UBC, home to 36,000 students, 13,000 staff and 7,500 permanent residents, in a unique situation among universities in Canada.

UBC vice-president Stephen Owen describes it as an amicable divorce with Metro Vancouver, one that will allow the university the freedom it needs to preserve an existing farm, build new research facilities without an onerous review by an outside authority, and continue its work of developing a green community on the edge of campus.

But its persistent critics aren't so sure about the idea of having one entity that owns the land, develops it and also makes all the rules.

"It's enshrining a company town without a municipal council," said UBC anthropology professor Charles Menzies, a persistent critic. "This university prides itself on building global citizenship, but it doesn't have real democracy at home."

Metro Vancouver chair Lois Jackson said that, although she agrees the UBC-Metro relationship wasn't working, she hopes the province comes up with something more democratic in the near future than what's in the proposed legislation. At the moment, the legislation makes the province the oversight agency for UBC, instead of Metro. "We hope that interim measure has an end date to it," Ms. Jackson said.

UBC and Metro Vancouver have had a fractious relationship for years, especially since the university started moving aggressively about 15 years ago to develop some of its 402 hectares for housing as a revenue generator, as well as expanding its campus.

Two other issues also generated small tornadoes of protest: a proposal to build new towers of student housing that would overlook the famous Wreck nude beach at the foot of the cliffs, and another plan to shut the university's research farm.

Critics fought university plans on campus and, when that didn't work, at the Metro board.

Metro Vancouver, which is the regional body for the 22 municipalities that make up Vancouver, tried to cope with the situation by coming up with a new zoning regime for UBC - one that university administrators said was unworkable.

The two groups had a fiery meeting last November, when Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan told the UBC reps that, if they didn't like Metro's ideas, the university should leave Metro.

The two sides approached the province to do just that a short time later.

UBC is in an unusual situation because it controls so much land and has moved to develop it for non-academic uses. Most universities in North America have control over their campus land, which produces friction enough.

But UBC owns much more land than its campus will ever expand to. It has already created a small town of housing developments and envisions seeing around 30,000 people living in its attached neighbourhoods within a decade.

Computer-science professor Mike Feeley, who lives in one of the developments and is the president of the elected neighbourhood board, admits that UBC has an unusual arrangement.

The board is elected by local residents and gets to dispense about $2-million in "fees," not taxes, collected to help clean the streets and run the community centres. However, it has no power over zoning or permitting. It can give feedback to the university's board of governors, the legal entity that controls UBC, but has no guarantee that its advice will be taken.

"We know we live in a complex relationship. It is not completely independent," Prof. Feeley said. "But it has been working."

That arrangement may continue for a while.

Mr. Owen, a former Liberal MP, said the university will eventually move to creating a more regular form of democracy for the residents. But Community Minister Bill Bennett, whose ministry will become the authority overseeing the university, said that he has no end date in mind for the arrangement he's proposed.

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