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Another Supercenter delay
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A tenuous Ceres City Council found itself dead-locked Monday evening over an aspect of the Walmart Supercenter project that, after hours of deliberation, sent the matter into yet another continuance.

Mayor Chris Vierra recused himself from the Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center vote, saying his employer, StanTech engineering firm, has done work for Walmart. That left only three members left to vote on the appeal of the Planning Commission's approval of Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center. Three votes are required to pass an ordinance to approve the project.

Vice Mayor Ken Lane pressed for Walmart to retool the reuse plan for the old store once it would be abandoned if the new center is approved. Lane wanted some "teeth" in the agreement and insisted numerous times that he wants anyone who buys the site to abide by the same reuse agreement.

Lane later told the Courier that he specifically wants any owner of the old store property to be forced to abide by a strict maintenance program on the highly visible corner.

"I'm on the Walmart side; I just want to protect the corner," said Lane.

Lane refused to support a motion supported by Councilmen Guillermo Ochoa and Bret Durossette to approve the project and dismiss an appeal filed by a group named Citizens for Ceres.

Walmart's attorney Miriam Montesinos, appeared exasperated that she couldn't offer such assurances to Lane but reiterated Walmart's pledge to swiftly market the property.

Attorney Liz Anderson said the reuse plan provides "enforceable requirements" to market the abandoned building. She said marketing would include a sales flyer, place the site on websites and actively market the site at regional and national conferences and outreach to potential buyers and brokers.

"Walmart does not own any vacant stores in California," said Anderson.

Walmart has agreed to allow a competitor to use or buy the current store building in Ceres if it hasn't been filled within 12 months of abandonment, councilmembers learned last week.

"A substantial amount of time and hard work has gone into preparing this plan," said Anderson. "We feel that the plan responds to all the questions, and provides the city with the certainty it has requested to ensure the existing Walmart store - when relocated - will be reused as quickly as possible and will be maintained in the meantime."

Lane said later that he doesn't mind if Walmart keeps its anti-competitor clause provided that the company gives the city a specific list of businesses that they won't sell to. Most concede that Target and Winco would be top on the list.

Walmart representative Amanda Neufeld urged the council "not throw the baby out with the bathwater," asking them to approve the project as Walmart works on the reuse agreement. The city already stipulated that building permits would not be issued until the council okays the reuse plan. Neufeld said the project, which fits with the zoning and general use designation of Regional Commercial, offers "promises great economic development for the community."

Company officials are hoping to prevail in an appeal of the Planning Commission's approval of Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center. Citizens for Ceres has complained that Walmart has a pattern of abandoning stores for years as they pursue Supercenters. Their attorney, Brett Jolley, called the reuse agreement a "paper tiger" for which the city would have no control as far as who gets to use the large store if it becomes vacant.

"The council should be concerned," Jolley argued. "The reuse plan is insufficient."

Walmart said on Monday that it will not package its reuse plan with a developer agreement. City Attorney Mike Lyions said the city cannot force the company to offer one.

The retenanting or reuse plan reviewed by the council outlined the following commitments:

• A goal to sell or retenant the store within 18 months of abandonment;

• Allowing a potential competitor such as Target to buy or lease the building if Walmart isn't negotiating to fill the store within 12 months of abandonment. The anti-competitor clause will be lifted even if half the store is committed and the other half is not.

• Committing to keep the abandoned store clean and free of graffiti and help pay $20,000 to the city to assist with patrols. The company also commits to keep up landscaping at the site.

On Monday Lee Britell, who in the past complained the project would impact his Don Pedro Avenue home, criticized the project from the standpoint of five traffic signals on Mitchell Road from Highway 99 to Don Pedro Road. His criticism came after it was announced there would be a signal for the southbound 99 offramp at Mitchell Road.