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Ugly in Union Ranch: School site, promises

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POSTED July 4, 2013 1:06 a.m.

The fate of Union Ranch School is in limbo. It is a victim – just one of many – of the mortgage meltdown and foreclosure tsunami whose life-changing path of fiscal devastation continues to ripple today.

Don’t go looking for this campus because it’s not there – yet. There are those who doubt that classrooms will ever rise from the nine-acre dust bowl that it still is today since the Manteca Unified School District purchased it before the housing bubble burst. The brown sprawl of dirt is literally right in the middle of new homes in the Union Ranch subdivision located right across Union Road from the burgeoning age-restricted Woodbridge at Del Webb development. It stands out like a hue that does not belong to a color wheel since right next to it is the lush green grass of a basin park bordered by neatly tended flowering plants. And, incongruously standing just a stone’s throw from the wide open dusty wilderness is a children’s colorful jungle gym.

It’s no wonder residents who have been subjected to what residents have long been calling an eyesore are furious. The more than two-dozen who brought their concerns and ire to the Board of Education at their June meeting said the appalling condition of the unsightly vacant lot in their neighborhood is driving down the value of their properties. Some of the other suggestions presented: sell the land, or just give back the Community Facilities District fees – otherwise known as Mello-Roos – that the homeowners have been paying for the last several years.

One response that school district officials proposed was simply shot down as nothing more than a Band-Aid solution to an ongoing problem. It also sounded like an expensive proposition to the members of the board - $230,000 for a streetscape and landscape – money that would have come from the voter-approved Measure M funding, and more importantly, money that could be used for the district’s more critical needs. The proposal did not include installing grass on the nine-acre dirt lot so the blowing-dust problem would still remain. There’s also the continuing maintenance issue including irrigation, which means more money to be budgeted.

What prompted the landscaping proposal was the district’s desire to keep the land’s tax-exempt status. The district is legally required to make improvements on the property or lose its tax exemption, the amount of which is not known at this time. Hence, the landscaping was proposed with the understanding that by the time the school is ready for construction, all streetscape and landscape would be all installed and the trees will have grown mature to provide shade. The question is, nobody knows and no one can say when that will happen. With homebuilding grinding practically to a halt, erecting a school at this site remains out of the question. One even brought out the question about why it was necessary to have that campus at this location since the biggest housing nearby is the 1,420+ age-restricted Woodbridge at Del Webb for seniors. However, it also has been pointed out that more residential projects are expected to develop around Union Ranch.

While the Union Ranch residents have been the most vocal about the negative impacts of dirt blowing in the wind from the school district property next door, Superintendent Jason Messer pointed out that this is not a problem that is unique to this northeast Manteca area. Other homeowners are facing the same situation in school-district places where housing developments came to a screeching halt, leaving campus sites set aside to serve those home developments in limbo as well. Two of these campuses in limbo are the Ethan Allen School at Mossdale Landing in west Lathrop, and the Tesoro subdivision on South Van Ryn Avenue, formerly Spreckels Road.

Recognizing the complexity of the numerous issues involved in these undeveloped school properties – $1,000+ CFD fees (Mellop-Roos) for one, being paid by homeowners who maintain that they are ponying up for undelivered services and benefits, and what to do with the school district’s dust bowls – the Board of Trustees decided to hold a study session on the subject of Community Facilities District fees in August. The meeting, to be held at the school district office at 2271 West Louise Avenue, will be open to the public.

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