Merced County Times Newspaper
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City trims Charter proposals for voters

New park curfew hours OK’d; student housing plans denied

Former Merced Mayor Bill Spriggs might smile, maybe chuckle a little, if he learns his name was brought up repeatedly at Monday night’s City Council meeting.

Current leaders were pointing out that Spriggs — who only served one, 2-year term as mayor — would still be eligible for a second, four-year term if voters approve one of three City Charter amendments that are headed for the March 3 Primary Election.

And it was pretty ironic that Councilman Kevin Blake — the son of Spriggs former political opponent Bill Blake — spoke up about that possibility.

The Merced City Council directed staff to come up with ballot language that will ask voters to expand the elected mayoral position from the current two, 2-year terms limit to no more than two, 4-year terms going forward.

That means if a past mayor already served two terms, like Mayor Murphy will have done by the end of 2020, he or she would not be able to return to the city’s top spot. However, past mayors who served only one term, would be welcome to try for one more four-year term. All new mayors would have the opportunity to serve two terms for a total of eight years.

Two other separate city ballot measures are also being worked on, including the creation of a City Council compensation committee that would decide on monetary stipends for elected leaders. The idea behind this proposal is to increase pay and attract more candidates for what is now pretty much volunteer positions. The other ballot initiative concerns slight changes to the role of the city’s Finance Officer. It makes clear that the official reports directly to the City Council as well as the City Manager.

These proposals for the city’s “governing document” were based on recent recommendations by the City Charter Review Committee. The panel also had brought forward three other proposed additions to the Charter, but leaders revealed those other three could be accomplished at the council level by enacting new ordinances.

These proposals include: reducing the size of a mandated financial reserve fund that’s not being utilized; establishing a tax accountability committee for voter-approved measures; and requiring appointments “by districts” to the Planning and Parks and Recreation commissions.

However, it’s important to note that if these three proposals are changed by enacted ordinances, future councils would have the ability to overturn those ordinances.

Social change activists who have voiced concerns about district representation on all city commissions might have a problem with that potential reality.

The ballot language is expected to come back soon for a final council vote. Stay tuned.

Crackdown on park hours

Using the argument that public parks in Merced are currently unsafe after dark, the City Council voted to curb the hours available for residents to use them.

Currently, the curfew at Merced’s public parks is from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.

From now on the curfew will be: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., from March 1 to Oct. 31; and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., from Nov. 1 to Feb. 28/29.

The council decision for a new ordinance was 6-1, with Mayor Murphy voting no.

Murphy stated he was uneasy with the change, suggesting it had the appearance of targeting a specific population, and doubting that the new hours and current enforcement options would be effective in reducing the number of potential offenders.

On the other hand, Resident Bob Scoble, who lives on 28th Street across from Bear Creek Park, “whole-heartedly agreed” with the council’s decision.

“We need to do something about illegal activity that takes place in the dark hours at all of our parks.” he said. “I think I have made a half dozen phone calls to police to come by at 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning to get involved with some sort of activity out on 28th street that projects back to the park.”

Neighborhood activist Sair Lara said: “Our parks are in a state of emergency right now. … This is to address a public safety issue. The city’s parks are not up to their potential. If somebody can be at a park for 17 hours out of the day, they will not go and seek services.”

Predictably, all three council members who work in law enforcement — Blake, Delray Shelton and Matt Serratto agreed with the new hours.

Said Blake, “Nothing good happens in a park after dark … Our parks were designed for our families and our children, but frankly they are havens for crime. I have seen everything from drugs to homicide and everything in between. .. this is not targeting the homeless, this is targeting criminal activity.”

Said Shelton, “A good portion of our [law enforcement] time is dedicated to crime in parks, and so I think this actually will be a step in the right direction.”

Councilwoman McLeod asked a good question: “Will this mean less work, or more work for police? … It seems like you are going to get more calls.”

The answer from city staff was “yes” — at least at first, and they added that the park scenario will hopefully change over time.

Staff also revealed they are working to install additional security cameras and enhance police patrol efforts.

While the word “homeless” wasn’t brought up all that much in the discussion, it was surprising to this reporter that no one from the local homeless community, or from a human rights organization, was present to speak out on the issue.

Nimbyism or just the wrong project?

A few years ago, developers said they wanted to build a 62,000 square-foot shopping center on 5 acres of vacant land at the corner of McKee and Yosemite in north Merced. They acquired the zoning, and it looked like it was good to go.

The site was also considered to be one of the closest available commercial spots in the city to the UC Merced campus — and to all those students and faculty members in need of off-campus services.

More recently, however, the developers came back with another idea: Build a four-building, three-story housing project with 428 single-room studios or “efficiency dwelling units,” each designed for a single occupant.

They said they kept hearing that the “city of the rise” is desperately in need of more housing stock — including for university students — as rents climb for struggling residents.

They held neighborhood meetings, and neighbors expressed concerns about traffic impacts, the number of rental units, a concern over the presence of bars and nightclubs, and overall visibility near residential homes. A couple residents told the Times, they were worried the project would end up being an affordable housing project, aided by state initiatives, for low-income residents, or to help curb the homeless problem.

They made adjustments to plans, but the Planning Commission was not convinced. They denied a conditional use permit. So the developers appealed to the City Council.

On Monday night, a representative for the developers urged the city to accept the project.

“You are not going to make everybody happy,” Joe Englanoff said. “I think at the end of the day, it’s very rare to find a developer who has funding ready to go. We are turning to you, and saying we want to do this over here, and we want to be your partners. And we are addressing the problem. The problem is: You can’t deny the fact of a housing shortage. We are trying to address that situation as respectively as possible.”

However, about a half dozen neighbors and residents who frequent the zone showed up to denounce the project, including Joel Moses.

“This is like a one gallon bottle and you are trying to put 1 and 1/2 gallons of water in it,” Moses said. “It’s a little tough. The intensity that we are talking about here is greatly more than anything I have seen in my career. The number of cars coming in. The parking requirements. If you are going to have people visiting and having parties on site, there will be more people coming there than living there.”

The decision appeared to weigh heavy on Councilman Serratto who ultimately agreed with the water in the jug analogy.

“There’s a lot to be said about this project and where it is. It’s close to the UC. It’s on Yosemite, which in a lot of ways, is potentially a corridor that is going to allow a lot of students. … We also deal with the expectation of the neighbors. It’s been a rural, quiet area, with bigger lots. … On the other hand, there was suppose to be a big shopping center there, and nobody seems to be really objecting to that. People seem to want that. In addition to that, you are on your way to the UC. Everybody knows and expects more traffic, more activity, more growth, more development out toward the UC … It’s a huge center gravity, and it’s going to pull people out there. … I have struggled with this. We have to separate, to be blunt, the Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) sort of sentiment from the real issues. We can’t just say these housing developments are for poorer neighborhoods, or these type of developments are for underdeveloped areas … You can’t do that. We have to separate the emotion.”

A majority Serratto’s colleagues voiced similar concerns, saying the location was just the not right fit for such a project.

Interestingly, the two Latino leaders representing the South Side on the council had opposing views on a project that could be seen as a housing alternative for UC Merced — where a whopping 55 percent of the 8,000 or so student population is considered Hispanic.

Councilman Fernando Echevarria looked straight at the developer’s representative and said: “I do want housing, and I want it on the South Side in District 2. I have a couple of lots that would be perfect for you.”

Said Councilman Anthony Martinez: “I can’t narrow my scope of the problems in Merced to that particular side of town. Traffic is already here. It’s all over. Anywhere CatTracks stops there are cars all over the place. Our students are spread out throughout Merced. What our student population really needs is to be able to access somewhere close to the UC. People might think the current location is not that convenient, but it happens to be one of the closest spots in the city to the UC. Yes there is closer land to the UC, but it’s not in the city, and it probably won’t be for a few years. Nobody really knows how long. We are at an occupancy rate of 1 percent, and we have people getting kicked out of their homes because of the price of rents going up. The students coming to Merced is a big reason why the price of rent keeps going up. … So more housing dedicated to certain students closer to the UC, one would think, would naturally drive rents down.”

In the end, the City Council voted 5-1 to deny the developer a conditional use permit.

Councilman Martinez voted “No.”

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