I would like to share with you a letter I prepared to appear as a full-page ad in the Tuesday, September 11, 2001 edition of the Merced Sun-Star newspaper. Following is the text of that letter to the Merced community:
On Monday, August 13th, the University of California, Merced and the County of Merced released a set of four planning and environmental review documents that are pivotal to the development of the campus. Together, these draft documents define the scope of the planning proposals for both the University campus and the Community adjacent to the campus, and describe the environmental impacts of the plans. The issuance of these documents began a 45-day public comment period. We sincerely invite such comments, and hope that you will take the opportunity to voice your opinion. To view these documents online, and to see a full schedule of hearings to be held by UC Merced and Merced County, please visit the web site www.ucmercedplanning.net. UC Merced will host a joint public hearing with the County this coming Thursday, September 13 beginning at 6:30 p.m. at the Merced College Theater.
As you all know, with the communitys help we have spent many years in preparation for our intended opening in fall 2004 to serve the first 1,000 students at UC Merced. Within several decades, we envision that the campus will grow to serve 25,000 students. The campus will be a full University of California campus, with dozens of buildings and scores of academic programs.
Habitat Protection Issues
A project of this size will require land, and will occasion growth no matter where it is located. The proposed plan for the campus offers significant advantages for environmental concerns and, we believe, merits widespread support.
Merced County is home to important natural resources, including vast areas of vernal pool habitat in the eastern portion of the County. In creating our plans for the University, we have made a commitment to assist the County and the State in preserving a significant portion of this valuable habitat and enable subsequent generations to enjoy these important natural resources. As many of you will recall, thanks to a grant from the Packard Foundation, we have proposed to set aside large natural reserves on the Virginia Smith Trust lands adjacent to the campus. In addition, last year the Governor and the legislature created a $30 million fund for purchase of conservation easements, which will protect extensive areas of valuable natural habitat in eastern Merced County.
A University of California campus is a significant economic stimulus to the surrounding community. Even the smallest of the current UC campuses annually contributes millions of dollars to the local economy just by way of student, faculty, staff, and visitor expenditures. In addition, the UC campuses attract visitors, performers and their patrons, professional conventions, and companies that wish to locate close to the intellectual capital provided by the University. Each of these groups helps provide local economic benefits.
The economic benefits provided by UC Merced will, over time, help the community to reduce the current double-digit rates of unemployment in the County. In January 2001, Merceds unemployment rate of 17.6 percent ranked 331st out of 331 metropolitan areas. UC Merced will offer well-paying jobs at the entry level, the managerial level, and the professional level.
Having the campus and other major employers in the Central Valley will also offer some of those who commute long distances a job alternative that is closer to home, thereby helping to improve air quality, fostering family life and promoting more community participation.
The San Joaquin Valley of California has not benefited from the economic development that has swept over the coastal areas of California. Low family incomes, high levels of unemployment, low levels of education and a very young population in the Valley combine to accentuate a variety of social issues. Many families require public assistance: for example, 70 percent of the children in Merced County are eligible for school lunch programs. A quarter of the children under 18 are defined as living in poverty. Similar statistics apply in neighboring counties within the San Joaquin Valley
The population of the San Joaquin Valley is among the most diverse in California. In Merced County and several other counties in the San Joaquin Valley, over 40 percent of the children under 18 are of Hispanic origin. In addition, Merced County has one of the youngest populations in the entire United States, with 34 percent of its population being under 18. These childrens needs must be met and their lives must be improved.
Education, including higher education, helps guarantee these children options in their adult careers and is seen as the single most effective step toward financial and personal success. Children in the San Joaquin Valley require the full range of educational opportunities. For decades, students from the San Joaquin Valley have been severely under-represented at the University of California. A University of California campus is necessary now to ensure these children the range of educational options they need and deserve.
The financial constraints of families in the San Joaquin Valley make the scholarships provided by the Virginia Smith Trust a particularly attractive element in the UC Merced plan. These scholarships will continue and grow under the plan being presented, opening educational opportunity to hundreds of local students.
The Central Valley faces rapid growth in the early decades of the 21 st century. Planning for sensible communities, providing educational opportunities, and supporting employment alternatives should be goals throughout the San Joaquin Valley. UC Merced addresses all of these goals and will provide a model of environmentally sensitive growth for the future.
The projected growth for this area must be factored into our thinking as we evaluate the plans for the campus and the surrounding community. These plans look forward, incorporate principles of smart growth, value both the agricultural heritage of the area and the unique environmental resources and offer sorely needed educational and employment opportunities. Alternatives that envision little growth for the area – or that put off addressing growth issues for years – only mean that random, unplanned growth will occur as parcels of land are converted to a variety of other uses.
The University of California faces a tidal wave of students over the next decade, with 60,000 additional students seeking places on our campuses. The existing nine campuses are working hard to accommodate as many of these students as possible. The bulk of these students will seek admission to campuses between 2005 and 2010. UC Merced can help by offering qualified students admission beginning as scheduled in 2004. By opening as planned, UC Merced will accommodate roughly 10 percent of these new students, will offer students in the Central Valley an additional educational opportunity, and will begin graduating engineers, scientists, artists, and humanists to contribute to Californias economy.
The Central Valley derives its wealth from agriculture, hence the University and the County have an appropriate appreciation and sensitivity to the need to help preserve agricultural land. This appreciation is evidenced in the proposed University Community Plan by the following:
- Phasing the community development over a period of several decades, with appropriate constraints to reduce conversion of agricultural land;
- Providing buffer zones between the university community and agricultural areas, thereby encouraging agricultural uses to continue during the development period;
- Committing to high-density design and hence assuring that land use is concentrated to minimize the impact on agricultural land;
- Orienting the community to pedestrian activity and transit, thereby reducing the impact of transportation on the surrounding agricultural land; and
- Fostering a slow transition of open space as the community develops to maintain agricultural activity.
Ranching as a lifestyle is part of the heritage of the Central Valley and the conservation easements described earlier will help maintain grazing land while preserving vernal pool habitat.
The last decade has seen substantial conversion of the rich agricultural lands of the Central Valley to other uses. As the Central Valley becomes home to millions of additional families, additional agricultural lands will be converted. But invoking the principles of smart growth can help target that growth and manage it to minimize the impact.
In conclusion, I have promised you a campus that lives lightly on the land, and one that looks to the future in its physical planning, its use of technology, its sensitivity to environmental issues, and the preservation of agricultural land. I have promised a campus and a community that will address creatively the growth issues, the cultural issues, the economic needs, and the educational needs of the area. I believe our proposal for the new campus and associated community fulfills all of those promises, and I hope you will endorse our approach.
University of California, Merced