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City starts process to annex UC Merced

The Merced City Council on Tuesday night unanimously agreed to move forward with an annexation process that would make the entire UC Merced campus near Lake Yosemite part of the city proper.

“Our futures are so intertwined going forward,” said Mayor Matthew Serratto before the decision. “UC Merced is going to be a major economic driver of this community for the future in so many ways.”

The process is moving relative quickly, with city officials saying they can prepare applications and environmental review documents needed for annexation in eight to 12 months from now.

The goal of placing the campus within the city limits, so to speak, is being aided by what is known as AB3312 — legislation that was passed by Sacramento lawmakers a year ago. It allows the city to annex the UC Merced campus in an unconventional manner: by way of a roadway or strip that connects the campus to the city’s current northern limits. This is sometimes called a “shoestring” annexation. In this case, Bellevue or Lake roads could be considered the connector strips. However, AB3312 prohibits the annexation of properties along this type of road strip unless (and this is interesting) the properties are directly adjacent to the main campus.

So there are four additional properties that would be able to be annexed at some point through AB3312 — provided each one went through a separate and thorough review, application and city approval process. The ownership of these (mostly undeveloped or farmland) properties are referred to by city officials as “Virginia Smith Trust,” “Opinski,” “Lakireddy” and “Callister/Rucker.” The Merced Office of Education provides oversight of the Virginia Smith Trust which is a large swath of property intended for development that will help support local student scholarships.

Traditionally, annexations of land into the city follows a one-adjoining-property-after-another approach that’s contiguous to the existing city limits. And that will still be the case for other land to the north that the city expects to be part of the city some day.

Since 2019, City of Merced staff have been involved in a “expansion feasibility study” for 7,600 acres of land north of the current city limits with the goal of somehow reaching up to UC Merced. They have conducted outreach to property owners, held workshops and produced surveys. An update on the report is expected in March.

Nevertheless, AB3312 came about — with the help of local Assemblyman Adam Gray — to move forward with what is considered much-needed, and long overdue, development for the UC Merced campus community.

“t’s a huge issue,” Mayor Serratto told his colleagues. “The UC has been there for 15-plus years, and there’s nothing out there. There’s not even a gas station. You have 10,000 students on that campus. You have the shops on the campus, but there’s nothing surrounding it. So it’s poorly served in a lot of ways.”

Serratto made a point to say that the council’s decision on Tuesday night will “create an assumption or expectation” that annexation and development of those properties right next to the UC campus “is gong to happen.”

There are annexation advantages for both the university and the city. The UC has it’s own police department. The city would have to enter into a contract with the university to provide fire service. The city does plan a future station in the northern region, perhaps even on the campus. The city has already been providing water and sewer service since 2003. The two also have partnerships with regard to housing, transit and downtown facilities such as the Venture Lab for small businesses. The city would have to evaluate refuse services, but the UC already contracts that out. There could also be some future partnerships on expanding recreation opportunities on campus for the general public. Also, students living on campus would be allowed to vote in city elections, and the two northern city council districts would change boundaries depending on new census figures to be released.

Last but not least, sales taxes generated on campus, or any future developments nearby, would go to the city’s coffers.

There was relatively little opposition to the annexation proposal on Tuesday night. Council members Fernando Echevarria, Bertha Perez and Jesse Ornelas did voice concerns about UC Merced’s impact on other parts of the city and residents, particularly in south Merced. They highlighted the need for available housing across the city, and affordable housing in south Merced and near the UC Merced campus. And they were assured existing water and sewer capacity was sufficient to cover at least this initial part of the annexation of UC Merced, and that water and sewer capacity in other areas of the city would not be affected.

Said Mayor Serratto, “I’m very concerned with creating sprawl, and I’m very concerned on what that could do to the rest of our community. I think we need to be cognizant of that, but at the same time, the UC was put out there. We have to deal with it.”

Meeting on budget priorities

On Feb. 27, at 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., the Merced City Council, along with city department heads, will hold their annual Strategic Planning Session, a fancy title that in year’s past has meant the powers that be get together and prioritize what initiatives and goals city staff will pursue and work on heading up to the new fiscal year, and of course, the related budget impacts.

During the era of Mayor Stan Thurston, those meetings were informal, “roundtable” affairs, and the public was given a chance to speak from a podium on the various topics. Later, the annual discussion was added to a regular City Council meeting agenda at the start of the year.

This year, due to current pandemic conditions, a special meeting will be held but it won’t be open to the public. Residents will be able to submit emails and voicemails for the council to consider. The meeting will not be broadcast. A report will be issued on the meeting, and a presentation will later be made at a regular City Council meeting. Stay tuned for more details.

Names for city parks

The Merced City Council on Tuesday night approved names for two city parks, and a future park site. The names were recommended by the Recreation and Parks Commission, and each gained the support of numerous residents.

  • The mini park located at 11th and H streets will now be known as Little Angels Park / Parque de los Angelitos.
  • The mini park located at Circle Drive and 23rd Street will now be known as Staff Sergeant Frank Joseph Gasper Park.
  • The future park site located at Freemark Avenue and Heitz Way, near the Bellevue Ranch area of north Merced, will be known as General Vang Pao Park, with the future playground at the same site to be named Aletha June Playground.

There are stories behind the naming of these parks, and the namesakes themselves. More on them in next week’s issue of the Merced County Times.

New name for airport

City leaders decided on a new name for the Merced Regional Airport, choosing from a few options provided by the Regional Airport Authority. The new name provides the city with ways to capitalize on regional and international tourism related to the nearby national park, and also boost marketing efforts.

The decision: “The Merced Yosemite Regional Airport.”

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