Faculty Senate votes in favor of Nature Preserve construction

 

Stephanie Espaillat / Asst. News Director

with additional reporting by Talia Torbica / Contributing Writer

The Faculty Senate was in session Tuesday, March 8 to discuss a proposed resolution for the development of two intramural fields that are planned to be built over the northern part of the Nature Preserve, a resolution which included a 2.9 acre expansion to the south.

The deliberation resulted with 15 in favor, 10 opposed and 2 abstentions. The Preserve’s compromise deal will be presented to President Mark B. Rosenberg and possibly at the Board of Trustees meeting on Friday, March 11.

The resolution suggested the approval of the intramural fields to be constructed in the northern area of the Preserve, provided that a list of conditions be met before its execution. Some of the conditions included adding the 2.95 acres to the southern area, and the excavation of a new wetland that will be sustained into perpetuity for multi-purposes.

The list of conditions requires the allocation of $2 million to a Nature Preserve endowment and improvement fund to enhance the preserved and natural areas on campus. It also demands the development of a sustainability and connectivity plan for both MMC and BBC that would evaluate campus sustainability and open space connectivity.

Many of the additional demands that were stated at the meeting suggested a compromise between the University’s administration and the faculty to properly fund and protect the Nature Preserve and all the natural areas on campus in the future.

Those in favor of the resolution stated the crucialness of the decision to be made in favor for the plan, because the University’s administration expected the decision to build regardless of the outcome of the faculty senate’s decision.

Victor Uribe, a history and law professor, said, “I would very reluctantly vote in favor of this motion only if we can ensure that nothing worse will happen.”

Some concerns made by the faculty senators had to do with funding and its implication.

“We have to establish an endowment in order to fund  the new facility, and that could take years for the new preserve to develop into an actual preserve,” said business professor Delano Gray. “If this is not part of the plan that we have going forward for 2020, and if this item is not in the budget, why isn’t it in the budget? It seems to me like the Board of Trustees have already decided. It seems like this is baked into the cake, and all they need is for their faculty to put their stamp on it. I thoroughly disagree having a discussion two weeks after they’ve had four months to go ahead and discuss this particular project.”

Kenneth Jessell, chief financial officer of the University,  responded to these concerns by saying “The Board of Trustees already approved the funding for the project. Half of that is coming from athletics and $500,000 are coming from Student Government. The remainder is coming from fund balances in the university.”

When addressing the concerns about the location he said, “We have been working much longer than just the two weeks. In December, almost two weeks after the Board of Trustees, we actually had discussions with the board members about the very preliminary scope of the project.”

Jessell also said, “We had not done design, we had not had the benefit of a program committee to be established. We started seeing problems early on but we told the board up front, ‘give the president the ability to look at other options.’ We have been all over campus looking for areas that would accommodate the fields.”

According to Jessell, building over the northern acreage of the Nature Preserve, and by excavating a new wetland area to the south with proper funding, would be the most viable option that the University could make.

However, those who voiced concerns about the resolution believed that the University’s administration did not conduct a proper investigation of the area and would negatively impact the rest of the ecosystem.

When asked about whether construction could harm the pine rockland area sitting directly adjacent to the expected construction site, Jessel responded by mentioning that on Feb. 25, he met with the Sustainability Committee to discuss the use of the northern part of the Nature Preserve.

The area of the Nature Preserve is close to 10 acres, and the two intramural fields would be located in the northern part, occupying 2.9 acres; all the large trees to the west of the area would be preserved.

“We are not going to do anything to impact the pine rocklands and the hardwood hammocks,” Jessel said.

Concerns were raised on whether non-athletic students would be able to gain access over the facilities since sports teams may end up occupying it for the majority of the time.  

There was a concerning link between the Miami FC and FIU deal that was made in October 2015 in association with the new practice fields during the faculty senate meeting. It legislates a three-year deal with a two-year option where the team may pay $10,000 rent per home game match, and $2,500 for any opposing team that would  practice at the University.

Joshua Muñoz, the organic garden manager, shed light on these facts that were provided by the Miami Herald when voicing his concern that the University may have special interests. However, Kenneth Jessell, denied the accusation by saying that the fields are not intended for anyone other than for the students.

He had mentioned that non-athlete students will have access to the proposed intramural fields, at least 50 percent of the time. Additionally, student athletes are allowed to practice up to 20 hours per week, therefore the remaining of the time used at the intramurals would be by non-athletes.

Jessel suggested that in addition to the students’ need for intramural fields, there is also a FIU athletes’ need.

He said “We are the only school in Conference USA, without practice fields.”

Some faculty who supporting the resolution suggested that the deal would be an incredible offer.

Philip Stoddard, from the department of biological sciences, has been working with the University administration to put into effect the senate resolution plans.

He said  that “we worked hard on the faculty resolution. It’s a deal made with the University, and it’s an unusual deal.”

Stoddard, who is also the mayor of South Miami, will be one of the few who will be responsible for the intended excavation of the new wetland project to the southern part of the preserve. Whether the University follows through on its commitments is a matter of trust, Stoddard said.

“It really concerns a matter of trust. Jessell has promised to honor the commitment, and I absolutely trust that the University will follow through with their promise,” Stoddard said. “In my 23 years of working at the University, I have never seen an offer that has come forward like this.”

On Monday, March 7, MMC-SGC facilitated a town hall meeting open to all students in order to discuss recent developments that would affect the FIU Nature Preserve. It took place the day before the Senate meeting where Jessell gave a presentation to address students’ concerns.

During the Q&A portion of the meeting, Ana Rojas, president of Glades and a Nature Preserve intern asked if “[there is] going to be a jurisdictional wetland delineation conducted prior to this development.” She claimed that the Dec. 18, 2012 Campus Master Plan Inventory and Analysis states it is needed when constructing in such areas. She added by asking if there “was going to be any environmental impact assessment, in which we can bring an outside unbiased third party to conduct it?”

Jessell said that he would have additional information after the faculty senate meeting, due to not being an expert in the area and not having answers to these questions. However, the question was not fully addressed later on at the senate meeting the next day, and reported that the University’s experts would be able to conduct this assessment if needed.

Despite making the decision to go ahead with the University’s master plan to build over the northern area, some students and faculty still remain hesitant that the Board of Trustees will respond to their demands for a win-win resolution.

“Since the administration has been moving fast on this issue, it does not inspire a lot of confidence that they will be seriously considering the concerns from the FIU community about protecting and improving the preserve,” states Bobby Joe Bracy, Jr. college of law. “Jessel seems to want to portray this as a ‘done deal’ without giving enough time to address the various concerns of the petitioners.”

Imeña Valdes, a senior studying biology and nutrition, had expressed her thoughts on the lack of trust she has with the University by observing their quick responses to the issue. “I think it may be safe to say that we’re all on the fence” says Valdes. “Jessel has already said that it’s confirmed, but tomorrow can be totally different.”

On Friday, March 11, the University’s students and faculty will know whether or not this commitment will be enforced based upon the decision made by the Board of Trustees. Even though some are hopeful, and some remain on the fence, many anticipate Friday’s meeting as the final decision that will be made for the future of FIU’s Nature Preserve.

FIUSM will update this story as more information becomes available

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