Perhaps it was a foregone conclusion that Merced is going to annex UC Merced and at the same time initiate new university community developments next door to campus, but this week both the City and County governments sent clear signals that the process is going smoothly and swiftly.
It started on Monday night with Merced City Council members voting unanimously on a series of agreements pertaining to an MOA with the university, transportation, utility fees, public services, environmental reviews and pre-zoning.
The city intends to annex a total of 1,139 acres, including the university and a 2-mile section of Bellevue Road “right of way” that stretches from G Street (within the current city limits) to Lake Road.
With plans in place, the process moves to the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) stage and state reviews. If all goes well, city officials say everything could come together in late spring.
The UC annexation is part of a unique, shoestring strategy created by state legislation, AB3312, and championed by former Assemblyman Adam Gray to accommodate rapid UC Merced growth. Once the UC is annexed, privately-owned land directly adjacent to the campus will be considered for development. This includes four separate proposed projects designed to align with the “University Community Plan.” Other land along the Bellevue corridor is excluded by AB3312, and will have to wait for future city growth. That said, the UC annexation will prompt the widening of Bellevue from two lanes to four, officials say. It will also pave the way for the final section of Campus Parkway to be completed, fully connecting Highway 99 to the UC.
“This is the first step of realizing the ‘Merced Promise’ that was proposed to the regents in the mid-90s when Merced was sold as the location for the 10th UC campus,” said Stephen Peck, a project manager for the Virginia Smith Trust (VST) Development Project, during Monday night’s meeting.
The VST project, located directly south of the campus, is the furthest along of all the development plans contiguous with the campus, and it’s expected to be annexed next.
Peck also spoke to the Merced County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday morning — that’s when the county reviewed its own agreement details for the VST project and unanimously approved everything.
Peck and others described the project as more than 30 years in the making, dating back well before the decision was made to locate the university in Merced, when the VST included thousands of acres to facilitate growth in education.
Today’s remaining VST land — a 655-acre rectangle in the middle of the University Community Plan — is destined to become a mix of housing (3,857 residential units), a K-8 school, new parks, a fire station, and commercial space (862,000 square feet).
Recognizing the need for affordable housing in the community, the VST project has set aside 13 percent of the housing (about 500 units) as “deed restricted units” for families and individuals with low and very low income levels. That amount is well above current city requirements.
The revenue from the VST project, overseen by the Merced County Office of Education, is also for great local cause — it will support ongoing scholarships for high school students across the entire county. The trust is ever-growing and reaching more than 1,500 students aspiring to go to college. Education leaders envision the scholarship fund eventually growing up to $125 million, with annual awards totaling $8 million.
The paperwork approvals this week by City and County leaders were praised across the board by partners in the process, including local government department staff members, UC Merced officials, developers and stakeholders.
More than two dozen community meetings were held to discuss the VST development alone.
“We are coming into this a little late in the game,” Peck told county supervisors. “The university got started about 20 years ago. The original plan was that we would build out together. So we got some catching up to do. But we look forward to your approval today, and actually starting constructing this, and catching up with the university needs, and keeping up with them as they grow.”
County receives $20M for flood relief in Planada
Merced County has received $20 million in flood relief funding dedicated for the community of Planada in the most recent State Budget — money that will be used to help impacted residents recover from the severe storm events they experienced earlier this year.
An item will be placed on the Oct. 24 Board of Supervisors agenda for the Board to formally accept the funding from the California State Office of Emergency Services. This funding was secured in the most recent State Budget thanks to the legislative efforts of Senator Anna Caballero and Assemblywoman Esmeralda Soria who championed the community of Planada, along with several community-based organizations and County who were instrumental in providing support.
“On behalf of the Board of Supervisors, I would like to express my sincere appreciation for the outstanding work undertaken by both Senator Caballero and Assemblywoman Soria to secure this funding,” said Scott Silveira, Chairman of the Board of Supervisors. “This will help one of our most vulnerable communities better recover from the unprecedented storms of 2023.”
In anticipation of the funding, Merced County staff has already begun developing programs related to direct financial assistance, vehicle replacement, home inspections, home repairs, remediation and enhancements to infrastructure. With those efforts in progress, staff will conduct a series of community-focused workshops and plan development meetings in Planada that will occur in the evenings and weekends beginning at the end of October. These workshops will be designed for the community to provide feedback on the plans regarding distribution of financial relief and other elements, and to offer ideas of their own. More information on these strategies will be shared in the coming weeks.
“Planada is a special community and has faced so many challenges this past year,” said District 1 Supervisor Rodrigo Espinosa. “I am very proud of how this community has rallied together, and am very hopeful this funding will help those most in need.”
Locally, more than $5 million has been spent to-date on response and recovery efforts for the 2023 Flood Events and an additional $13 million in Direct Assistance has been provided by the State to support debris removal efforts.
With weather forecasters predicting the possibility of another winter season with above average-rainfall, Merced County continues to focus on waterway maintenance and emergency preparedness. As always, the public is encouraged to sign up for Merced County emergency alerts at www.countyofmerced.com/alert.