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City dismisses Supercenter flap
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Allowing a property owner to partially clear debris and two old abandoned buildings from the site of a proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter was not a violation of environmental review laws, city officials assert.

The city received a written complaint from an unnamed outspoken critic of Wal-Mart and the proposed Supercenter. City Planning staffing answered with a six-page letter detailing that the site at the northwest corner of Service and Mitchells could be rightfully cleared and did not violate laws dictating environmental studies.

City officials say the clearing of the site was no big deal and was something the owner had a right to do.

"There are some things that private property owners are entited to do, among the least to take up some of their trees," said Barry Siebe, planning manager at the city of Ceres. "They followed procedure to tear down the structures."

The 26-acre site is owned by Mitchell Service LLC, which is linked to Florida-based Regency Realty Group, the company proposing development. The company hired Modesto Sand & Gravel to apply for a demolition permit, which was approved Oct. 31 by the city's Building Division. Siebe said the site was likely cleared by the owner for fear that it presented some public safety issues, among them being fire risks and homeless persons who had used the abandoned structures.

Planning Director Ken Craig said there was no process that automatically triggers a demolition permit to be forwarded to planning staff so his staff was unaware that it was taking place until City Hall received calls about it. Once he learned of it, the city pulled the permit and demolition stopped.

"The integrity of the environmental process has not been impinged upon," concluded Craig.

Still, Craig noted that it would have been nice if the demolition permits had made their way to his department for review.

In his response, Craig noted that: "While internal communication and discussion with the Planning Division would have been desirable and appropriate, and would likely have resulted in the suspension or modification of the application based on the ongoing EIR process, the issurance of the permit did not violate any regulation or law. The routine processing of demolition permits now includes internal discussion and review by the Engineering and Planning divisions."

He noted that the demolition does not make it easier for the developer to address environmental issues since the physical condition of the property before demolition is what will still be addressed in the environmental revview. He also noted that the structures which were razed had no historical value, therefore no mitigation measures would have been required.

The complaintant wondered if the demolition disturbed any wildlife but Craig said that a fox seen in the area does not fall under the endangered category and has no specific protection under the law. No other protected tree or plant species was identified by biologists who visited the site in September.

Opponents of the proposed Supercenter have insinuated that the city's allowing the land to be cleared gives the impression that the Supercenter is on an inside track to approval.

The proposed Mitchell Ranch subdivision is undergoing environmental and economic impact studies and should be before city officials in April. The studies must take into account the impact the proposed center will have on local traffic, air quality, noise and existing merchants.

Pacific Municipal Consultants (PMC) is conducting the EIR while Bay Area Economics (BAE) is studying the economic impacts of the proposal. The city is interested in knowing what may happen if Wal-Mart abandons its existing store at Mitchell and Hatch roads. Siebe said it's a common sense conclusion that Wal-Mart may be unable to operate two stores in Ceres, which has a population of 41,000.

The Wal-Mart Supercenter is only one element of the 304,000-square-foot project. The Supercenter would occupy about 208,172 square feet as the anchor of the center with approximately 36,167 square feet of grocery sales.

Siebe suspects that if Wal-Mart was not part of the application that there would be no questions raised about the site being cleared. The proposal has generated controvery from among those in the community who dislike the retail giant.

Wal-Mart company officials said they will leave the existing Hatch Road store open after renovating it. Some have questioned the truthfulness of that statement, wondering how Ceres can support two Wal-Marts.

Supercenters differ from regular Wal-Mart stores because they are larger and sell groceries, electronics and many other products. They typically offer better prices than established grocery stores but have proven controversial in many California communities protective of smaller merchants.