A Catholic university will be the center of a planned 3,000-acre subdivision overlooking Sacramento, Calif., with splendid views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, thanks to a land donation.

“This will be a Catholic university that gets to start out without any problems of being landlocked in any way,” said the developer of the subdivision, Cordova Hills, Ron Alvarado.

Alvarado, a Catholic, and his business partner, Charles Somers, recently donated 200 acres of hilltop land so the Legionaries of Christ can build a campus for the new University of Sacramento, the first university to be established by the order in the United States.

“It’s a beautiful site with a 360-degree view of the entire region,” said Legionary Father Robert Presutti, president of the University of Sacramento. “The campus will sit at about 270 feet above sea level, and the plane of Sacramento is at about 50 feet above sea level. It’s an absolutely beautiful location, in a state that’s blessed with nature and a beautiful climate.”

The University of Sacramento is part of a global network of 15 universities operated by the Legionaires of Christ. The university launched its first curriculum, offering a Master of Arts in Education degree, in January 2005 with 40 students in downtown Sacramento office space. Today, about 80 graduate students are enrolled in two certificate programs.

The university will launch a second master’s program, the Global Leadership MBA, in the fall of 2008.

The university’s master plan, which Father Presutti hopes will be achieved within 25 to 40 years, calls for a university with a combined undergraduate and graduate enrollment of about 7,000 students, athletic teams, sports facilities, residential facilities and a performing arts center.

A law school may also be on the horizon, but Father Presutti said the university’s long-term academic focus mostly will be determined by consumer demand.

“I salute the university’s continued progress to create a new and unique educational resource for the Sacramento region and beyond,” said Jonathan Brown, president of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities.

Father Presutti said the Legionaries studied census data, population trends, geography and educational needs throughout the United States when deciding where to locate their first university in the United States. Sacramento, he said, became the obvious choice because of its growth rate, its Catholic population and California’s need for more universities.

Brown said the Legionaries’ decision is California’s blessing.

“California will need an additional 700,000 higher education seats in the coming years to meet the needs of all its students, with a significant portion of the need focused here in northern California,” Brown said.

History of Education

The Legion opened its first university, the Anahuac University, in 1964 in Mexico City. Today the Legion operates 43 post-secondary educational institutions, including its universities. The Legion also operates 175 pre-school, elementary, middle and high schools around the world serving more than 122,000 students.

The land for Cordova Hills was bought by developers four years ago, and will be used for a mix of high- and low-density residences, commercial, recreational, open space, schools, and hiking and biking trails.

Alvarado said his decision to donate land for the university wasn’t based on his Catholic faith.

“It really wasn’t,” Alvarado said. “But the overall global vision of the Legionaries got us excited about this. Irrespective of faith, we could see they were bringing a vision that would positively impact the area and people of all religions. The philosophy they bring is one of balanced and well-rounded education, and that can only be constructive for this region.”

Not everyone, however, is applauding. A June 25 story by Eric Stern in the Sacramento Bee said environmentalists would prefer that new universities be developed inside existing urban boundaries, in order to preserve rangeland as undeveloped open space.

“It’s going to be controversial. They have no entitlements. They’re going to have to go through a long process to do that. It’ll require the whole works,” said Sacramento County Administrator Paul Hahan.

Father Presutti and Alvarado said they have no expectation of an easy road to approval, even though the land is within the urban services boundary of Rancho Cordova and Sacramento County, and has been designated for urban services by the county since 1993.

“In California, with its myriad laws and regulations, it’s always difficult to develop anywhere in the state,” Alvarado said. But we and Father Presutti are very respectful of the environment and regulations designed to protect it. This entire development will be designed to respect the needs of the environment, while utilizing it properly for the needs of humanity.”

Michelle Smira, spokeswoman for the Cordova Hills development, said everyone involved with the University of Sacramento and the proposed development to surround it anticipates a cooperative relationship with the Sacramento County government.

Alvarado said time, not regulation, has become his biggest concern.

“The Legion wants to be operating on this campus by 2012,” Alvarado said. “Getting through the process does take time, so time is our worst enemy. But we will meet the university’s timeline.”

Wayne Laugesen is based in

Boulder, Colorado.