UC Merced shifts growth plan to the south

MERCED -- The University of California at Merced is altering where it will grow in order to address environmental concerns and better preserve wetlands, officials announced Friday.

The move was praised by environmental groups and UC Merced officials, who hope the revisions will make it easier to expand the campus and move forward with a contiguous university community.

The amended blueprint shows the campus growing farther south into the university community's initial site, and reducing expansion to the north and east. The change takes 100 acres from the campus, dropping it to 810 acres at completion, which is expected by 2035.

The change will not affect UC Merced's short-term growth and construction. Upcoming projects include a social sciences and management building, a second science and engineering building, more student housing, possibly a child care unit and an infrastructure plant, said Janet Young, assistant chancellor at UC Merced.

UC Merced is home to thousands of vernal pools, according to VernalPools.org. Much of the environmental concern since the remote site was chosen in 1994 has focused on such pools -- seasonally flooded depressions in which various species of plants and animals live, such as salamanders and fairy shrimp. Many of those are on the federal endangered species list, making development on the land contingent on approval from the Army Corps of Engineers.

The UC system's 10th campus opened in 2005 and has 1,850 students. Destruction of plant and animal life has been an issue for a decade and has led to two unsuccessful lawsuits.

This is the second major change in direction for the campus. The same vernal pool concerns shifted the university site onto what was the Merced Hills Golf Club in 2001, seven years after a site was chosen.

'A step in the right direction'

Army Corps of Engineers officials reacted positively to the latest announcement.

"I really think they have worked very cooperatively with everyone, so I think it will help them out a lot," said Dave Killam, corps spokesman.

The Butte Environmental Council, the statewide leaders in vernal pool preservation, has been involved in talks with UC Merced and applauded the revisions.

"Anything that decreases the impacts to wetlands and endangered species is a step in the right direction," said Barbara Vlamis, executive director of the council. "We're very happy they've been open to discussing these things with us before moving forward with the application process."

Officials said the campus could operate on the smaller acreage by increasing density, but the university community needed to remain about the same size.

The redrawn map alters the university community planned directly south of UC Merced. Planners added 310 acres on the eastern edge, increasing the project's acreage by 80 to 2,160. The university community will include about 11,600 houses, commercial and retail shops, schools and parks.

There is no timetable to begin construction on the community. The land today is mostly rolling hills and rangeland.

The changes came after consultations with the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and several other groups regarding vernal pools in the campus' original growth path. The new map reduces the amount of wetlands affected by UC Merced's development from 121 acres to 81.

Corps got plans in 2002

Campus expansion plans were submitted to the corps in 2002. Leaders decided to reconfigure their designs, Young said, to expedite the process and increase the university's chances of receiving approval.

University officials plan on submitting an amended application to the corps for campus expansion this winter along with the university community application. The environmental impact studies will be done concurrently, Young said.

If all goes well, the applications could be approved in about two years after environmental research and public hearings, she said.

In addition to talks with federal agencies, UC Merced officials have been consulting with the California Endangered Species and Habitat Alliance, made up of five environmental protection organizations, including VernalPools.org.

Carol Witham, director of the watchdog group, called the university's revision a "good-faith, consensus footprint," although she said she'd like to see assurances that the protected wetlands the university is setting aside will remain untouched by developers.

"I still wish that it could be moved even further, but I support the efforts they've gone through to get us where we are at," Witham said.

The groups said allowing their involvement strengthened UC Merced's conservation strategy. They commended campus officials for their willingness to compromise.

UC Merced already has set aside 25,000 acres of wetlands for preservation, a short distance to the northeast of campus.

At completion, the university would be more than three times the acreage of California State University, Stanislaus, in Turlock. It would dwarf Modesto Junior College's two campuses, 160 acres on the west campus and 80 acres on the east.

Victor Patton of the Merced Sun-Star contributed to this report.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.