A group of Fresno developers is laying the groundwork to build a health-sciences university at Millerton Lake.
The project, spearheaded by the Assemi family, marks the continuum of recently announced plans for a pharmacy school in Clovis and builds upon longtime efforts to urbanize the foothills north of Fresno.
Developers foresee a 100- to 150-acre campus set above Millerton Lake with a handful of post-graduate schools, possibly in optometry, podiatry and dentistry.
Details of the university still are being worked out. But the developers already have secured land off Millerton Road, some of which remains in escrow. A preliminary application for the school has been filed with the Fresno County Planning Department.
The developers, who have the blessing of key county leaders, say they hope to get through the approval process in two years and break ground as soon as 2015.
That may be optimistic. While a health-sciences university is not likely to face a challenge, per se, the location will. The project goes to the heart of a 30-year debate over whether the foothills should be the region's next frontier for growth.
It's a controversy that has heated up in recent months as city officials, joined by environmental groups, have pushed back against the county-supported Friant Ranch community below Millerton Lake and the proposed Tesoro Viejo project across the San Joaquin River in Madera County.
"It shouldn't be lost on people that when new development leapfrogs, existing neighborhoods suffer," said Fresno City Manager Mark Scott, who fears projects such as the university could siphon money and resources away from urban areas. "There is so much opportunity to develop in the center of cities that already exists."
The proposed California Health Sciences University would join a number of housing developments planned about 10 miles north of the city.
As many as 125,000 people could one day live along Millerton Lake and its outflow into the San Joaquin River, according to plans in Fresno and Madera counties.
The city and other opponents of the development say such sprawl will bring additional problems of traffic, air pollution and loss of farmland.
But county Supervisor Henry Perea, who is advocating for the new medical campus, said growth in this area is inevitable. Demand for new homes eventually will rise, he said, and the city's recent build-out of north Fresno makes Friant and Millerton Lake the natural next step.
"This county is going to grow in certain spots," Perea said. "We need to do our best to manage it and make sure it's done right."
Perea envisions the university as a centerpiece of the development at the lake.
"This is huge," he said, "and we've directed our staff to do what they need to do to make sure it happens."
The land for the medical campus was set aside for housing three decades ago, but county planners said a school could be accommodated, pending proper environmental review.
Ensuring adequate water will be among the biggest hurdles for developers, though Jeff Roberts with the Assemi's Granville Homes said surface supplies have been secured.
The preliminary application filed last month by Granville Homes starts a process in which county planners determine precisely what the developer must do before moving forward.
The developers said Millerton Lake was selected as the university site because it has the space they need to build.
The city of Fresno did not offer that, they said.
Granville has owned property near the lake for years.
Planners of the private university aim to fill what they say is a Valley need.
"The baby boomers are aging. There's going to be more need for health services, especially in the underserved Central Valley," said Flo Dunn, founding president of the proposed California Health Sciences University. "This is a good project to have here. We need to train and recruit professionals in the area."
The new university administration announced in December that they are opening a pharmacy school in Clovis in the fall of 2014. The school, which is taking shape in a vacant commercial complex off Highway 168, will be moved to Millerton Lake when the new campus is built, administrators said last week.
The university has established a governing board that includes retiring Fresno State President John Welty and Gerald Lyles, a leading Fresno businessman.
The administration is working to get the necessary accreditation to open.
Dunn said a second school, after the pharmacy school, will open in about 2018, though what health discipline that school will focus on remains to be determined. Other schools will be phased in over future decades.