Seasonal wetlands and the endangered species who inhabit them have forced planners for the proposed University of California, Merced, campus to choose a new location. Although many details remain undecided, planners have shifted the general site of the future campus — and an adjoining new community — a few miles closer to the Merced city limits.

The new site eases some worries about vernal pools (small depressions in the earth that fill with rainwater) and the fairy shrimp, an endangered species that live in the pools.

The original site of the proposed community was smack on top of what is probably the largest vernal pool resource remaining in the Central Valley. UC and county planners settled on a new campus location on the eastern edge of Lake Yosemite, with the planned community lying to the south.

The main campus would be built on the Merced Hills Golf Course. The rest of the preferred site for future campus growth and the community is pasture, cropland and open grasslands. There are far fewer wetlands on the new site. The new site also helps answer questions about sprawl-inducement that came with the original site, which was several miles outside Merced's urban growth boundary.

In 1995, UC regents choose a 10,400-acre site six miles northeast of Merced for the 10th UC campus. It is expected to accommodate 25,000 students when complete, and an adjoining community would be home to about 31,000 residents. Officials liked the site's relative proximity to an urban area, the availability of water, the potential to aid economically depressed Merced County, and a local landowners' promise of 2,000 acres of free property. They chose the location over finalist sites in Madera and Fresno counties.

But as experts investigated further, they found the vernal pool resource to be even greater than originally suspected. Not only would the new town pave over 3,000 acres dotted with vernal pools, but the campus site on the edge of the foothills appeared hydrologically linked to the area's vernal pools.

To receive a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to fill the wetlands — a "§404 permit" — planners had prove they had picked the "least environmentally damaging, practical alternative." So they undertook a comprehensive alternatives analysis, which was released March 1. Planners reviewed 15 sites in Merced County, including the original location, the closed Castle Air Force Base in Atwater, and three "campus only" proposals.

The biggest impact of developing the new site could be loss of farmland, said Woodie Tescher, director of urban planning & design for EIP Associates, a consultant to Merced County. But by placing the campus and adjoining community close to the current eastern edge of Merced, planners have a chance to address farmland conservation on a large scale. The original site left several miles of farmland between the campus community and Merced, all of which could have been lost to piecemeal development.

"I think it's enormously better than the site they had originally proposed," said Steven Johnson, a scientist for The Nature Conservancy in California. "They went from a non-starter, from a regulatory standpoint, to a challenging but do-able site. … If you could construct a compromise on all fronts, where a little bit of wetlands is taken, and a little bit of farmland is taken, then this is it."

The new site gives the City of Merced a larger role in campus and community planning, said George Hinds, a city councilman who has been involved in the process. The city intends to design strategies for permanently preserving agricultural land in the immediate area, he said.

"I think from a planning standpoint and for the city, this is a lot better," Hinds said.

But not everyone is happy. Some Hispanic organizations continue to lobby for an urban infill site, with downtown Fresno a leading candidate. The environmental group VernalPools.Org argues that the 1995 site-selection process and accompanying environmental impact report were deficient and is urging UC officials to start anew.

"A Subsequent EIR is required to remedy these deficiencies before the university proceeds with a site specific EIR for the UC LRDP [Long Range Development Plan]. The Subsequent EIR should consider a broad range of sites in the San Joaquin Valley for both environmental impacts and site feasibility issues," VernalPools.Org coordinator Carol Witham wrote to UC and county planners in a March 19 letter that sounds like the precursor to a lawsuit.

However, UC's latest path was smoothed in late March, when the David and Lucille Packard Foundation announced it would donate $11 million for the purchase of 7,030 acres, which includes the proposed new site for the campus. The gift was important for several reasons.

Originally the Virginia Smith Trust donated 2,000 acres for the campus, with the understanding that the adjoining community would get built on other trust land. Money derived from that development was to provide scholarships. But when planners proposed shifting the campus and community sites, it left the trust with little development potential.

Under the new agreement, UC will purchase 7,030 acres from the trust for about $8 million, with the remaining $3 million going to the trust for a scholarship fund. About 5,800 of the 7,030 acres will be protected as habitat, according to UC planners.

"Simply put, without the Packard grant, I'm not sure where we would have gone or what we would have done at this point," UC President Richard Atkinson said when the agreement was revealed.

An enormous amount of work remains before the campus can open in 2004, as Gov. Gray Davis has promised. Planners are using the alternatives analysis during talks with federal agencies in preparation for filing permit applications later this year. University planners have started work on a Long Range Development Plan and an EIR, both of which they hope to circulate for public review this summer, said UC Merced spokesman James Grant.

Meanwhile, county planners are preparing a community plan and EIR, which are scheduled to be released in July, said Tescher, who called the time frame very challenging.

"We really are looking at developing a sustainability theme all throughout this document," Tescher said of the community plan. "We're looking at some fairly innovative housing strategies."

Councilman Hinds said the new location causes his city to reconsider its general plan. "I think it's an opportunity to connect the campus and the community to the City of Merced much earlier," he said. Grant said UC officials intend to break ground in spring of 2002.

Contacts: Woodie Tescher, EIP Associates, (310) 268-8132.

Steven Johnson, The Nature Conservancy, (415) 281-0443.

George Hinds, Merced City Council, (559) 385-6866.

UC Merced website: