Annexation plan sparks debate over Merced, Calif.’s future growth

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The Civic Center in Merced on 18th and N.

Merced Sun-Star

A new proposal to add more than 150 acres of land to Merced’s town estate generally excites community members, but what to do with that land remains a matter of debate.

On Monday, city council members voted largely in favor of beginning the first steps to annex the 151-acre parcel on the west side of G Street to Old Lake Road, adjacent to north Merced.

With only city council member Jesse Ornelas opposing the decision, elected officials gave the go-ahead to launch a formal request for annexation. Ornelas cited a lack of information about the project’s vision as the reason for his objection.

Now the project can move forward with the formal application, followed by an environmental review process. The final proposal will ultimately be heard by City Council at scheduled public hearings.

The plot is owned by fourth-generation farmers Kimber Lee and Robert Rogina, who purchased it in the 1990s. The family is now seeking to annex the farmland to the city for future development, including commercial, residential and public uses .

The site is being redesigned as a mixed-use development with approximately 138,700 square feet of neighborhood commercial land and 11 acres of open space or park use. Approximately 522 to 608 low density residential units and 162 to 324 medium high density units are also planned.

About three miles west of the UC Merced campus, the project is expected to help students in desperate need of housing.

“We want to do what will be good for the community” Kimber Lee Rogina spoke about the proposal at Monday’s city council meeting.

Range of Opinions Expressed

What is good for the community proved to be a topic of discussion encompassing a range of opinions from council and community members. As so often in recent times, the debate has centered on the type of housing best suited to Merced’s needs.

Some residents have taken issue with the project’s high-density housing, fearing that more tenants will worsen traffic congestion on G Street and contribute to sprawl. On the other hand, others said the project would not significantly solve Merced’s housing problems.

Resident Fue Xiong criticized the proposal, pointing out that it did not meet the need for low and very low income units, adding that a majority of project plans for low density housing. While the proposal includes high-density units, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily affordable, he added.

“It doesn’t help us,” Xiong said.

As in many areas of the state, Merced’s low vacancy rate and rapid growth pose a challenge to renters and low-income residents competing for housing. State auditor data also shows that Merced’s severe cost load rating, overcrowding and unit unavailability are all high.

Merced leaders reiterated their commitment to attracting more development and last year completed a housing policy overhaul that resulted in a set of strategies to boost housing. Although they agree on the need to increase the volume of units, the leaders are divided on how to do it.

Some council members have advocated for policies that promote more affordable housing construction, such as inclusive zoning and setting aside city funds for an affordable housing trust fund.

Affordable housing has fixed costs, so people with very low to middle incomes spend no more than 30% of their salary on housing. Although units present feasible options for low-income residents, building and selling homes below market price makes building affordable housing a time-consuming and complex process.

Ornelas, who voted alone against the annexation proposal, said earlier this year that he would not support new development projects until the city pledged to boost affordable housing by creating a trust fund for affordable housing.

Monday’s proposal did not include a summary of the affordable housing planned for the project, but city staff said the applicant is aware that it must comply with any future affordable housing policy adopted by the city council. Council is expected to consider soon a policy that would require that a percentage, probably around 10%, of a housing development be affordable units.

Other council members, while not totally opposed to affordable housing, have indicated their preference for prices to be guided by the free market. Council member Kevin Blake expressed such a position on Monday, saying housing prices depend on supply and demand.

“From a market perspective, I think we need to build until the pendulum swings the other way,” Blake said, noting Merced’s vacancy rate is less than 1%. “I think it’s a big project,” he said of the annexation plan.

Council member Fernando Echevarria backed Blake in backing increased housing supply, but cautioned against being overly optimistic that increasing units will significantly reduce costs. Echevarria was applauded in the council chamber after asking that 15% of project units are affordable.

While responses to the project run the gamut, city leaders seemed largely united in the view that more housing is good for Merced.

“There’s an ongoing conversation about the need for housing, and I think that’s part of the solution,” council member Delray Shelton said.

Other project logistics

Additional infrastructure projects would be needed to extend the city limits further north, including work on G and M streets, according to the proposal documents.

Merced officials said they anticipate having to expand the city’s sewer system to accommodate the annexation, as well as other potential annexations expected near UC Merced in the future.

The proposed project would require a 16 inch watermain connection along the extension of Old Lake Road to the Snelling Highway. The site would also require the construction of storm drains, as there are currently none.

Wastewater generation estimates show that the residential development would generate approximately 257 gallons of water per day per unit. The commercial development is expected to produce an additional 41,600 gallons per day.

If the process goes as planned, the public will have the opportunity to comment on the project during the scheduled public hearings.

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Abbie Lauten-Scrivner is a reporter for the Merced Sun-Star. It covers the town of Atwater and the county of Merced. Abbie holds a Bachelor of Science in Journalism and Public Relations from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.


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