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Ruling Clears Way for UC Merced's First Phase

Courts: Environmental groups vow to seek an emergency stay to block immediate excavation at site on sensitive land.


The long-stalled plan for a University of California campus near Merced took a step forward Tuesday with a court ruling against the latest legal challenge brought by environmental groups.

University officials applauded the decision by Judge William Ivey in Merced County Superior Court and said they hope it will allow them to begin the first phase of construction at the proposed campus site northeast of Merced.

"We're looking forward to breaking ground as quickly as possible," UC Merced spokesman James Grant said.

Three San Joaquin Valley environmental groups had sued in February seeking to stop or slow campus construction and accusing the university of failing to adequately address the project's potential effects on the environment.

Patience Milrod, an attorney for the organizations--the San Joaquin Raptor/Wildlife Rescue Center, Protect Our Water and Central Valley Safe Environment Network--said Tuesday that they will appeal the decision and ask for an emergency stay to prevent any immediate excavation.

The ruling was the latest twist in a long-running struggle over UC Merced, which would be the university's 10th campus and the first new one since the mid-1960s.

Critics have said that UC officials, under pressure from the governor's office and state legislators to complete the campus as quickly as possible, have engaged in piecemeal planning and failed to address its potential impact on endangered species and the surrounding area.

The proposed site for the campus is in an area of sensitive wetlands and prime grazing and agricultural land. Among endangered species in the area are fairy shrimp and the San Joaquin kit fox.

At the hearing, Ivey ruled that the final environmental impact report on the campus project meets requirements under California law.

Tuesday's ruling involved only the initial phase of planned construction on a 200-acre parcel of land on a former golf course. In August, the university received permission to remove existing buildings from the area but had been prohibited from actually breaking ground.

But the main section of the campus faces further environmental reviews, expected to take about three more years.

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