By BRIANNA VACCARI and MICHELLE MORGANTE
Oct. 18, 2023
MERCED (CVJC) – A plan to develop a neighborhood of some 3,800 homes and apartments near UC Merced won approval from the Merced County Board of Supervisors, further establishing Merced’s identity as an emerging college town.
Under the University Community Plan approved Tuesday, more than 650 acres of unincorporated farmland south of the UC Merced campus will become a development of 3,857 homes and apartments; retail and commercial space; parks and open space; and transportation routes.
The plan designates 500 housing units as deed-restricted for affordable housing. Vinton Thengvall of the county Workforce Development Board said the project is a “transformational” opportunity that would not only relieve pressure for local housing but boost the economy.
“We’re excited about the infusion of good jobs the project will bring, both infrastructure and home building as well as the service-sector jobs,” Thengvall told the board.
The unanimous vote by the supervisors came on the heels of the Merced City Council’s unanimous approval Monday night of an application to annex the university campus into Merced’s city limits.
“This project is really delayed, and now we’re basically fulfilling the promises that we made many, many years ago,” Scott McBride, Merced’s acting city manager, told the county supervisors on Tuesday. “It’s truly going to be a game-changer for the university.”
UC Merced, the youngest of the University of California’s ten campuses, currently enrolls nearly 9,150 students. It plans to increase enrollment to 15,000 by 2030.
The development agreement is for an area of land known as the Virginia Smith Trust, which was established in 1971 upon the death of the native Mercedian. In her will, Smith wrote that the 7,000 acres of land north of Merced must be used to benefit local students. In the late 1990s, about 2,000 acres of the trust’s land was donated for the purpose of building the UC Merced campus. Another large portion of the land is preserved to protect vernal pools, home to endangered fairy shrimp and other wildlife.
When the Smith land was donated to create UC Merced, the Merced community promised the UC Regents to expand a scholarship program funded by the trust to serve those local students most in need, many living in the county’s smaller, more rural communities.
“So this is simply the first step of realizing the Merced promise that was proposed to the Regents in the mid ‘90s when Merced was sold as the tenth campus,” Stephen Peck, the project manager, told the City Council on Monday.
The county supervisors said that promise contributed to their support of the project.
“When this deal gets done, we’re not just talking pennies,” Supervisor Scott Silveira said. “We’re talking real dollars that can go to help people who want to further their education.”
The Virginia Smith Trust scholarship fund is projected to soon triple to about $1.5 million next year, Merced County Superintendent of Schools Steve Tietjen said. The development is expected to increase the value of the Virginia Smith Trust land, and by 2040, the scholarship fund is expected to range from $7 million to $10 million, thanks to revenue from the development, Tietjen said.
More than 650 acres south of the UC Merced campus, outlined in red, is on track to be developed into a neighborhood of 3,800 homes and apartments under a plan approved by Merced County on Tuesday. Credit: Merced County
McBride during Monday’s city council meeting estimated the campus annexation proposal will go to a vote at the Merced County’s Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) around May or June before requiring state action. The University Community Plan development will be right behind the campus application.
“VST is looking forward to helping develop a community south of the university to support the university and the members of the community that need quality housing,”Tietjen said. “And we’re looking forward to the time when we can fulfill the promise of supplying scholarships to every student that wants to go to a four-year university out of high school.”