Merced leaders started a conversation this week that will lead to arguably the most important decisions the city will make in terms of growth, new service areas and lasting impact for all residents.
The City Council is considering the most recent annexation proposals, the process in which they are developed and reviewed, and the big question over how to create a prosperous pathway to encompass UC Merced and develop a surrounding university community.
“We need to start growing toward the campus, start growing that community, and allow for attractive housing that’s close to the campus,” Mayor Mike Murphy told the Times after a public hearing on Monday night. “This growth will bring benefits to other neighborhoods in the city. For example, Bellevue Ranch is overburdened by some issues. Students who would otherwise be in an apartment setting are living in single family homes. When you have six to eight students living in a home, that situation creates parking issues on the street. If we can create the opportunity for additional student housing, it’s going to improve the quality of life for other areas of the city.”
The tough part of any discussion to extend the boundaries of a city is how to provide those key services that are attractive to developers — water, sewer, garbage, police, fire, etc. In Merced’s case, the ability to provide sewer capacity is key.
There is some additional capacity at the Wastewater Treatment Plant, but it’s limited. Currently they have enough to spare for what official call “3,350 equivalent dwelling units.” Longtime city planner Kim Espinosa says it might take five to seven years to increase capacity.
Based on what’s currently available, Mayor Pro Tem Matt Serratto points out that it looks like the city could approve a couple new annexation proposals that include significant housing developments close to the university, while reserving some sewer capacity for areas directly adjacent to the campus.
That latter part of Serratto’s wastewater vision invites the big question over how to reach the UC and annex surrounding land remains unclear. Normal annexations follow a continuous growth path of parcels that extend directly from the current city limits. While there are some owners of county land north of Merced who want to see this kind of development, the area is also speckled with private property owners who don’t want anything to do with it. There’s also LAFCO requirements and studies that need to be considered.
Fortunately for city decision makers, they now have a new growth tool they can utilize that they didn’t have only a short time ago. The California State Legislature has approved AB3312 — an exclusive change to the state annexation law designed specifically for Merced.
Authored by Assembly member Adam Gray, AB3312 allows the city to annex the UC Merced campus along a road strip (such as Bellevue or Lake roads) between the UC and the city limits, without including adjoining properties. Think of it like a stem with a cherry on the end, Mayor Murphy explains.
If the city annexes UC Merced by using this cherry stem route, it would be able to then annex three major properties immediately west of the campus and one to the south. These include ownership properties described by the city as “Callister/Rucker,” “Lakireddy,” “Opinski” and the “Virginia Smith Trust.”
A lot of the original Trust land was offered to help create the university in the first place, but 1,240 acres of “development” land is located immediately south of the campus. The Merced County Office of Education maintains the Trust, and profits from it are intended to help provide college scholarships to area youth. Currently, almonds are being produced on the land, but future planning includes shops, housing, schools and perhaps a business park.
It was no surprise that Assemblyman Gray showed up at the city meeting on Monday night to explain AB3312.
“Obviously we undertook this step for good reason, and the good reason … it has been far too long and we have not realized some of the development opportunities in the surrounding area of UC Merced,” he said. “The state made this tremendous investment in our community — a long time ago now. And some of us were involved in that from the very beginning, and we’ve worked to see the City of Merced grow. We are entertaining ACE Rail coming into Merced, and High Speed Rail into Merced, and investment in the Campus Parkway project. So the state has made some significant investments, but a short-sighted part of the [UC Merced] investment was putting the university so far outside of a small San Joaquin Valley community. We didn’t totally consider the challenges of getting the UC annexed into the city.”
Gray said it wasn’t his intention to mandate what city leaders should do, but rather empower them “to make creative and flexible decisions so we can best allocate our resources.”
He pointed out that there is a lack of “campus life” directly outside of campus and that is creating challenges for both student and faculty recruitment, particularly related to housing. He said projects are ready to go and he emphasized the immediate need to act now. And he added that the community could use the “long unrealized dream” of significant scholarship money from the Virginia Smith Trust.
‘Go East … Young Merced’
Later Monday night, the City Council directed staff to develop improved annexation policies and application processes that would include getting the elected leaders involved at an earlier stage, rather than just at the end when a project awaits final approval. They also voiced some of their more immediate priorities they want staff to pursue.
These include three annexation projects currently under review.
1) “University Village” — This includes 70 acres located on the northeast corner of Yosemite Avenue and Gardner Road. The developer — Clif Caton — is planning to create a housing/rental/retail project. The housing portion would be similar to the Merced Station project being constructed at Lake Road and Yosemite.
2) “Bellevue and M” — Developer Greg Hostetler has applied to develop a pocket of county land for housing in the vicinity of Bellevue Road, M Street and El Capitan High School.
3) The city’s existing Wastewater Treatment Plant, on the southern end of the city along Gove Road, is in need of expanding its footprint; however, no additional sewer capacity is needed for this project.
City leaders agreed they could start work on these project, while continuing to consider how to grow toward or from UC Merced.
However, Mayor Murphy made it clear: “I think we need to start moving east,” he said, referring to the Bellevue Corridor that extends from existing city limits along G Street toward UC Merced.
It appeared a majority of the council agreed. Some pointed out that the city already has existing infrastructure along Bellevue.
Nevertheless, leaders agreed, the big question will remain for the foreseeable future: “Should Merced annex the campus along with its surrounding areas using AB3312, or should Merced find a more traditional way to get there?”
Said Murphy, “These are not easy decisions. … In a way it’s a nice problem to have. We have a lot of interest in building in Merced. But how do we as a city make sure that we integrate ourselves with the needs of the campus, and also make sure that we don’t become two cities? How do we keep the charm and character of our downtown, and maintain the heart of our city?”
He added, “We as a council have to make sure our decisions benefit all the city’s residents.”
To be continued …