UC Merced Reiterates Commitment to Extensive Mitigation Measures While Balancing Central Valley’s Need for Expanded Access to Higher Education

MERCED, CA - The University of California, Merced said today (July 29) it remains optimistic that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will issue the federal permit it needs for next-phase development of its 910-acre campus and a contiguous university community.

The university issued the statement following an extensive interview of a Corps staff member in which he speculated that the permit might not be issued. The comments were reported in two area publications this morning, without noting that they do not represent the official position of the Corps.

Officially, the Corps has said it will be several more months before they complete their draft environmental impact statement, and perhaps as much as a year, before the permitting process has been completed.

"The statements made by Mr. Roukey, as reported in the Merced Sun-Star and the Modesto Bee this morning, represent the personal opinions of a single individual," said Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, UC Merced chancellor. "They do not align with the facts as we know them and are not supported by the Corps in any official way. The permitting process has many months to go and does not call for the Corps to make a decision until public hearings have been held and all issues have been fully aired."

After hearing all parties, the Corps' decision will rest not just on environmental issues, but on a variety of factors, including land use, property ownership, and the needs of the people. In addition, the final decision will incorporate the public and private need of the proposed project.

Tomlinson-Keasey said the university "strongly disagrees" with the staffer's opinions on the likely outcome of the permitting process. "We have worked closely and diligently with the Corps for more than seven years and feel we've met every requirement to demonstrate that our proposed site is the only practicable alternative for future development of the campus and the associated university community," she said.

At issue is the university's proposal to develop a site near Lake Yosemite in Merced County that includes approximately 86 acres of federally protected wetlands for the campus and the associated university community, an essential part of the project that would provide housing and services to support campus activities. Development requires a permit issued by the Army Corps. To obtain the permit, the university must demonstrate that the proposed site is the best alternative for a campus than can accommodate up to 25,000 students at full development and the contiguous university community.

"The issues raised in the articles published today have been fully addressed in volumes of documents we have submitted to the Corps over the years," said Tomlinson-Keasey.

"Our plans for full site development have always recognized the need for a conscientious, thorough, ecologically sound program of mitigation and land preservation. We take our stewardship responsibilities very seriously and are committed to making UC Merced a model of environmentally responsible development."

In fact, a portion of the lands that have already been protected are perfectly suited to extending research on this habitat and will be available to researchers from all over the world.

UC Merced's existing campus, now in Phase I of development, does not include any protected wetlands and is not affected by the permitting process. Phase I will encompass approximately 105 acres and accommodate up to 5,000 students at build out, anticipated around 2012. Future phases will include another 805 acres on adjacent land and increase total campus capacity to approximately 25,000 students by 2035. The university community, to be built on an adjacent parcel of 2,000 acres directly south of the campus, is an integral part of the project.

In previous filings and public statements, the university has repeatedly stated its commitment to "full mitigation," both in quantity and quality of lands affected, thereby meeting or exceeding all federal requirements for wetlands development.

"We have the resolve, the scientific expertise and the resources necessary to create or restore wetlands equal in size and quality to any we affect," said Tomlinson-Keasey. "We are fully committed to a 'zero net loss' standard - that is, there will be no net loss of wetlands or their functional values resulting from our development."

Tomlinson-Keasey said the university has considered a number of alternative sites and concluded that none would fulfill the defined purpose of the campus and university community.

"Any other site would involve dozens of individual parcels of land and property owners, making their acquisition extremely problematic," she said. Any site that does not incorporate an adjacent community would result in farmland destruction and traffic management, and would negatively impact the region's air quality.

"Only the university's proposed site would allow for the continued, cost-effective development of the type of beneficial research university long anticipated and much needed by the Central Valley," said Tomlinson-Keasey. "We are already well along in addressing the real educational and economic needs of this fast-growing, historically underserved region. The interests of Valley residents are best served by moving ahead with the proposed site as planned while holding ourselves to the high standards we have set for full environmental mitigation."

Tomlinson-Keasey noted that the university has already placed more than 25,000 acres of high-quality vernal-pool habitat under permanent protection. Each of these purchases was reviewed by a number of state and federal agencies. In addition, the university has committed to the preservation or enhancement of one acre of habitat for every acre of developed land containing vernal pools.

The permitting process will include a 60-day period for public comment as well as a four-hour public hearing conducted by the Army Corps. Dates will be determined by the Corps.

"We welcome the open review process and look forward to addressing any concerns related to our permit application after the public process has taken place," said Tomlinson-Keasey.

UC Merced opened September 5, 2005 as the 10th campus in the University of California system and the first American research university to open in the 21st century. The campus significantly expands access to the UC system for students throughout the state, with a special mission to increase college-going rates among students in the San Joaquin Valley. It also serves as a major base of advanced research and as a stimulus to economic growth and diversification throughout the region. Situated near Yosemite National Park, the university is expected to grow rapidly, topping out at approximately 25,000 students within 30 years.


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