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Annexation development not so thrilling for split council

The fifth time was not a charm on Monday night when a split vote by Merced City Council members left a housing project proposal near UC Merced without their “general support.”

It was the fifth pre-annexation application to come before the council since a new process was established last year to increase transparency, get leaders more involved in development projects, and allow developers a chance to weigh their decision on whether to move forward in what likely becomes a long planning period wrought with environmental reviews, permitting, and other regulations — not to mention their own private negotiations to secure funding and construction contracts.

Interestingly, four other projects that are in a targeted annexation area next to, or near UC Merced have received a strong, initial thumbs up from the council in recent months.

Those include the Rogina family project north of Old Lake Road, and three projects directly adjacent to the university: Yosemite Lake Estates (Gallo family), University Vista (Callister-Rucker families), and the University Community Plan (Virginia Smith Trust).

However, things were different for the proposed Branford Point project on land owned by Greg Opinski.

When put to a “general support” vote, the council was split 3-3 on the decision, with members Fernando Echevarria, Jesse Ornelas and Berth Perez voting NO. Councilman Delray Shelton was absent from the meeting.

The City Council has only had a fully attended regular meeting once since May 16, and that was on June 21 when a vote on the fiscal budget was required. The council meets twice a month for the regular sessions, and each council member receives a stipend for their service.

The Branford Point project is much smaller than development plans of the previous annexation applicants; however, it includes a similar “mixed use” vision. It’s located within 50 acres on the west side of Lake Road, south of Bellevue, and across from the south end of the UC Merced campus.

Some 650 total dwelling units are proposed, of which 325 would be apartments, 233 town homes, and 92 described as “affordable housing” units. There would also be 758,597 square feet of commercial/industrial uses for such things as retail shops, a hotel, and research and development offices.

Approximately 1,145 jobs will be created during the construction phases, according to the plans.

Opinski, who said he purchased the property in 1990, suggested that the project would create a walkable neighborhood with perhaps a community gathering place near the university that would be “something really nice for the city and the students at UC Merced.”

Local residents might recognize the name Greg Opinski. In 2019, the former Merced Union High School District trustee who had a local contracting business faced charges in a high-profile Los Banos school public corruption probe. The investigation found evidence of a bribery scheme linked to school construction bids and contracts. The cases of Opinski and Tommy Jones, a former Los Banos mayor and school board trustee, were settled with plea agreements.

None of this was brought up by the City Council on Monday night. Instead, two council members — Fernando Echevarria and Bertha Perez — brought up concerns regarding affordable housing and local labor involvement.

Councilman Echevarria — who in April publicly described the Gallo’s Yosemite Lake Estates plan as “probably one of the greatest housing projects that I’ve ever seen” (Echevarria has also said he previously worked for the Gallo family’s local agricultural operations) — said on Monday night that he was concerned about Opinski’s initial plans regarding affordable housing.

“Right now we are in a housing crisis,” Echevarria said. “We need to have the affordable housing in the first phase. And we have to have a clear and concise definition of what is affordable and what is market.”

He also said: “There are some questions. I’m going to need answers and commitments in writing, or by contract with our labor unions until I feel comfortable moving forward with this.”

It’s not clear what Echevarria meant by “commitments” and “our labor unions.”

Councilwoman Bertha Perez was more direct. She asked, “I would like to gauge your feelings on a labor agreement, saying that we ask that you to hire 20 percent of your workers from the city of Merced.”

In his response, Opinski told Echevarria that he has already been talking to city staff about changes to the phases of development and he is willing to work on affordable housing ideas.

With regard to Perez’ question, he replied: “I’m local. I’m no longer doing construction, but I can tell you that’s a fight I worked long and hard for. I am all about hiring local. … I’ve worked with all the large and small contractors in the Merced area. Some of the project aspects might be too large, but they would be somewhat local. I would say Modesto and Fresno. … The talent is still in Merced too … but some of the structural steel building, some of the large metal framing contractors, would not come from Merced — they are just not here. But there is no stronger advocate for hiring local than me.”

During the meeting, city staff pointed out that the pre-application process is only the start of a longer process, and that if the project moves forward, much more detailed plans would be coming back to the council in the months ahead.

The three council members who supported the Branford Point Annexation included Mayor Matthew Serratto and council members Kevin Blake and Sarah Boyle.

“I’m in full support of this,” Boyle said. “Looking at the map of what we have already showed support for in the pre-applications that are coming in, the size of the scope is a lot smaller than the other ones. As a council, we are all in support of affordable housing, but if we don’t push this along, it might never get done.”

The “general support” vote does not stand in the way of the Branford Point development moving forward. Opinski, and the official applicant, Precision Civil Engineering, can continue with the pre-annexation application. And, according to city staff, he has indicated that he will do so, as well as address the concerns of individual council members.

Any city annexation process involves a heavy amount of planning and reviews. It’s possible some of the recent proposals will end up going for final approval with a City Council that features a completely different makeup as per the local election process.

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