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California and the West

UC Merced Campus Gets Key Grant

Education: With $11.5 million for a site free of environmental tangles, the university could open as expected in 2004.

March 20, 2001|KENNETH R. WEISS | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

The long-proposed University of California campus near Merced, bedeviled by the endangered fairy shrimp and other environmental troubles, has secured an $11.5-million grant for a land deal that should allow the campus to open on schedule in 2004.

Until the grant came in, university leaders were lamenting that the first class of 1,000 students might have to begin their college education in temporary classrooms off campus.

But in a deal to be announced today, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation has ponied up the money for UC Merced to buy 7,030 acres of land, including a golf course, that will give the campus an initial building site free of the delays that come with federal environmental reviews.

The deal opens the way for Gov. Gray Davis to designate another $160.4 million this year to construct the first two academic buildings and plan a third. UC officials hope to break ground next March.

Davis, who pledged in his gubernatorial campaign to deliver the Merced campus, also has made $30 million available this year to buy conservation easements on 60,000 acres of surrounding pastureland.

Such easements turn lands into protected areas that would offset any environmental damage caused by the campus. Although grazing would continue on the property, the vernal pools, for the fairy shrimp and its cousin, the tadpole shrimp, in the surrounding rolling hills would be preserved.

With construction beginning on the Merced Hills Golf Course--which ultimately will be paved over--the project will create far less disruption to the environment, said Mary Nichols, the governor's secretary of resources.

"This is exactly what we were hoping for: moving the core of the campus from the heart of the vernal pools to the edge of the sensitive habitat," Nichols said.

About 3,000 acres of these seasonal wetlands are being plowed under every year, as farmers legally convert grazing land into vineyards or farmland for other crops, she said.

So the development will end up as a "net benefit" environmentally, with its conservation zones woven into the area's urban fabric, she said.

"It's an alternative to the typical unplanned sprawl that has ruined so much of the California landscape," Nichols said.

All this money and attention from state leaders comes as the University of California tries to launch its first campus in more than 35 years.

UC Santa Cruz and UC Irvine were the last campuses to open, in 1965. That was years before lawmakers in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., approved the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws that often slow, or halt altogether, developments of such size.

So when biologists found that the selected site in Merced was surrounded by 7,000 vernal pools that breed the rare, tiny crustacean, university leaders were forced to rethink their plans.

Before federal regulators would grant permits to fill in wetlands or kill endangered species, they forced the university to look for alternative sites that would create the least environmental damage.

UC officials were particularly intrigued by the golf course site, which would shift the campus from the heart of the land owned by the Virginia Smith Trust to one edge. The trust had agreed to donate 2,000 acres to the university, in exchange for development rights around the campus.

The advantage to the shift was that construction of the golf course had already destroyed wetlands under previous permits and thus was not subject to federal environmental reviews.

But the site presented a financial problem. The Virginia Smith Trust, which was set up to supply scholarships to students in the area, has racked up $7.5 million in debt to develop the golf course and was betting on greens fees to supply scholarship dollars.

Furthermore, the UC Board of Regents insisted that land for the new university be donated. For that reason, the university was not in a position to cover the trust's $7.5-million debt on the golf course or pay for the land.

So UC officials, along with the Nature Conservancy and Nichols, turned to the Packard Foundation for a possible grant. The foundation's board Friday voted to approve a grant of between $11.5 million and $11.9 million, depending on the land's appraised value.

The money will be used by UC Merced to buy the entire property owned by the Virginia Smith Trust, a total of 7,030 acres.

University officials plan to divide that into two parts: 5,030 set aside as a permanent conservation area and 2,000 acres for the campus. More than half of the campus property, however, will be placed in the university's natural reserve system for biological study or, at least temporarily, set aside as a nature buffer zone.

The first phase of the campus' construction will take place on the golf course site.

But the trust, after paying off its debt, also plans to buy about 1,200 acres south of its current property for a planned residential and commercial community. Trust board members are counting on proceeds from that development to generate scholarships.

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