Measure C shouldn't thwart UC Merced community

Annexation, which takes time, is likely outcome for land adjacent to campus.

October 27, 2010 

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SUN-STAR PHOTO BY MARCI STENBERG Measure C, a ballot initiative that could save farmland from development, could force UC Merced and board members of the Virginia Land Trust Scholarships to put future planned development of the land to the voters for their approval if the initiative passes.

MARCI STENBERG — Merced Sun-Star

Measure C, the Save Farmland initiative on Tuesday's ballot, could affect the future development of the University Community, a mixed-use development serving UC Merced students and faculty.

Or it may not affect it at all.

The University Community is an area that would include housing for students, faculty, plus a research park and businesses that would serve the campus.

If the ballot measure passes, it would prohibit county land larger than 10 acres that's designated as agricultural or open space from being converted into residential use, unless a countywide election is held to approve that development.

Other factors that could weaken the effect Measure C has on the development of the University Community, which is part of the Virginia Smith Land Trust, could be the passage of Measure D or the city's annexation of that property into part of its general plan.

UC Merced officials oppose Measure C, according to Patti Waid Istas, a spokeswoman.

"The university has already gone through 15 years of planning," she said. "A vote would further delay the process to develop the University Community, which is adjacent to campus. If the measure were to pass, a countywide election would have to happen. It could cost $400,000 for the landowner."

According to Karen Adams, Merced County registrar of voters, if UC Merced was the only entity in the countywide election process mandated by Measure C, the cost could total more than $400,000.

Most likely, the university would share the costs with other issues, she added.

There's also the cost of running a campaign to inform voters of the proposed development, said Kenneth Robbins, an attorney for the Virginia Smith Land Trust. "One could easily envision the cost of the campaign would be in excess of $100,000," Robbins said.

Alan Schoff, a spokesman for Citizens for Quality Growth, the group behind Measure C, said if people are going to use their tax dollars to pay for the infrastructure in a new development, then they deserve a voice. "It comes back to supervisors rubber-stamping housing projects and not scrutinizing the liability to taxpayers," Schoff said.

He added that there's a lot of support for UC Merced in the community and he felt strongly that voters would decide in favor of the school's development.

Merced County supervisors placed a referendum on the ballot this summer, Measure D, that would allow swaths of land the county already planned to urbanize to be rezoned for residential use without an election.

Janet Young, UC Merced associate chancellor, went before the Merced County supervisors in July after the adoption of the initiative and said the university backs the county's change to the initiative.

But even if Measure D passes along with Measure C, the campus could still face going before voters to develop that land.

There's a piece of land that's not part of the University Community's development plan that will be a part of it in the future, because of a necessary land swap, Robbins said.

The federal government wouldn't permit UC Merced to develop its campus on some of the land nearest Lake Yosemite because it was too ecologically important, Robbins said. Instead, the school has to build farther south -- which would take land out of the University Community development -- to fully build out the campus. An additional piece of land would be taken out of the Virginia Smith Land Trust to come into the university community project.

"It's a swap," Robbins said. "Some argue that if Measure D is also passed, there won't be any impact because the University Community is already designated as a development area, but that's not correct because the third pivot is not in the development area."

Schoff said that if the land isn't in the current Specific Urban Developmental Plan, it needs to be revised to include it.

Talks have been under way between the UC Merced and the city about the city's annexation of the University Community, Schoff said.

If the city annexes the University Community it wouldn't be affected by Measure C.

"The right thing for the university to do and the city is to work on completing the annexation process and to work on completing the goals of the original plan," Schoff said.

Robbins said he knows that people think that city annexation will be the way it should happen, but the outcome remains unclear.

Annexation could take a long time, Robbins added.

"It could take years -- it's never going to take just months or weeks," he said. "We have annexations pending for another project that have been on the books for five years."

David Gonzalves, director of development for the city of Merced, said it's always been the city's intention to annex the University Community.

The city provides water and sewer service to UC Merced, and there's verbiage in that agreement that requires the University Community to be annexed into the city, Gonsalves said.

The timeline for that depends on the university and when it starts the annexation process -- the ultimate gown and town deal.

Reporter Jamie Oppenheim can be reached at (209)385-2407 or joppenheim@mercedsun-star.com.

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