With calls for governance reform, what’s the future of the University Endowment Lands?

In the 15 years Claire Huxtable has lived in the University Endowment Lands (UEL), she’s consistently heard concerns from her neighbours about the area’s governance structure.

She’s also had some of her own.

“Really for decades, there's been this desire to have more direct representations of the community's wishes in the community's ability to get things done,” Huxtable, a member of the UEL’s Advisory Design Panel, said.

The UEL is an unincorporated area of just over 3,000 residents. It’s not part of Vancouver, nor a part of UBC campus. If you live very close to campus, but not in student housing, you likely live in the UEL.

Map of the University Endowment Lands
Map of the University Endowment Lands Photo: Courtesy UEL, Recolouring: Isabella Falsetti / The Ubyssey

Technically, the 'mayor' for the UEL is the BC minister of municipal affairs, a position which has seen three different office holders in the last three years.

In a statement, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs said its role is in “administering services and regulating development.” Those services range from administration and development services to infrastructure like water and sewer services.

The result of this structure is a lack of representation and accountability, residents told The Ubyssey. Community members aren’t voting for who becomes their de facto mayor, and the community is also unable to enforce key bylaws that would improve the quality of life of those in the region — including those regulating noise or protecting trees.

The revolving door of ministers has also complicated things — first it was Selina Robinson, then Josie Osborne and now, Nathan Cullen.

“Each time there's a new minister, they have to get up to speed on the whole file,” Jen McCutcheon, the Director for Metro Vancouver's Electoral Area A — which includes the UEL — said. “And of course, Municipal Affairs covers so many other topics, so [the UEL] isn't always top of mind.”

Cullen came out to the community a few weeks ago, a visit that sources The Ubyssey spoke to said was generally positive. But it’s the first time any of them could recall a municipal affairs minister coming out to the UEL in recent years.

“Should we be in the position of having to ask somebody who is basically our mayor to come visit the community?” Huxtable said. “It's absurd.”

For residents, the issue of the cannabis store in University Village put the deficiencies in the governance on display — residents were clear they didn’t want the store, the Community Advisory Council voted no, but the minister and other bodies not representative of the UEL went ahead with it.

While Teddy O’Donnell, a member of the Community Advisory Council and a fourth-year music and political science student at UBC, said there are some benefits of being in the UEL — namely that they pay lower taxes than the rest of the community — this lack of representation and accountability is a big issue.

“Residents want a real voice,” O’Donnell said.

Governance study results pending

Residents have been asking for a governance review since 2013. Recently, there’s been some movement on that.

David Eby, who’s been the MLA for the UEL and the surrounding areas since 2013, said he’s been involved in these conversations since he began in the provincial government.

“The closest the community gets to political accountability is me, but I am not the minister responsible for their file,” he said.

Eby said he encouraged the Ministry to start work on governance reform in the UEL. That study launched in early 2020, and only recently concluded. Results of the study will be released sometime near the end of the summer.

The study explores some different potentials for governance reform. Some possible scenarios are to keep the structure as is, become part of a regional local service area, become part of the City of Vancouver or incorporate it into a new municipality. All have pros and cons, community members said.

Amalgamation with the City of Vancouver would make some sense, McCutcheon said, due to the UEL already receiving fire services from the City and being part of the Vancouver School Board. But becoming part of Vancouver could make the representation issue worse.

“[Residents] feel they have a unique situation and if they’re just sucked up into the whole City of Vancouver, they will be treated — as one would expect — as part of the City of Vancouver as opposed to as their own unique area,” she said.

O’Donnell said he suggested to the minister that having a referendum on incorporation might be a good idea, but admitted he’s not sure there’s the same support for becoming a municipality as there once was.

Huxtable said the most important part is simply getting someone who will be responsible to residents. “I think that can happen under a number of different structures,” she said.

The study, while a step forward, won’t result in any direct action, McCutcheon said. It will also be a long path forward to having any meaningful governance reform, due to it having to go through the Ministry.

But McCutcheon said this governance study is an important step to address accountability.

“Where that leaves us is, on this longer term path to a new governance system, some options for the minister, and the people of the UEL to consider,” she said.

She said in the meantime, she’s pushing for short-term solutions for some of the issues around bylaw enforcements — mainly getting the ability to enforce them.

“I think some of those small things could give residents some sense that there is accountability for people's actions,” she said.

Eby said the “ideal solution” is one that “will allow the community to have things that other communities take for granted.”

Eby recently announced his bid to be the leader of the BC NDP — making him the likely next premier due to broad party support. He said he’ll continue the push for governance reform if elected.

“If I'm successful in my leadership bid, I can be in a better position to ensure that that is realized,” Eby said. “I think that would be good news for the community to finally have some recommendations about how to address this issue and a government committed to implementing.”