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Fate of Supercenter delayed
Ceres Planning Commission members will examine the pros and cons of a new Walmart Supercenter on April 4.

At the Tuesday, Feb. 22 commission hearing on the proposed Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center, members were unable to reach a decision on the application. Walmart is seeking a conditional use permit - because of alcohol sales - and a vesting tentative subdivision map for a vacant 26-acre site at Mitchell and Service roads which it seeks to develop.

The project was first proposed by Regency Centers of Florida in 2007. It has since been scrutinized for its environmental and economic impacts.

At the conclusion of the meeting - which started at 6 p.m. and ended at 11:35 p.m. and included the input of numerous proponents and opponents - the panel continued its public hearing.

If approved, the national retail giant will close its store at Hatch and Mitchell roads and relocate to a 185,668-square-foot Walmart Supercenter with 36,167 square feet devoted to grocery sales.

At build-out, the shopping center would bring 10 other retail shops totaling 114,162 square feet consisting of three other major tenants and four smaller shops as well as a stand-alone retail building and two to three restaurants.

Amelia Neufeld, Senior Manager of Public Affairs & Government Relations for the Walmart Corporation in Sacramento, said her company has over 10,000 supporters and said a survey of Ceres voters showed a 66 percent approval for the project.

"Our customers are telling us they want a new and expanded store in Ceres," said Neufeld. She said the existing site does not have the space to expand.

About 60 persons spoke at the lengthy hearing. While about half the crowd of 200 persons were supporters, the other half - including workers from other grocery stores - was not.

A number of employees of union stores living in Ceres and Hughson were prompted through a Feb. 15 memo issued by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) to protest the Supercenter, since Walmart does not employ union workers. The memo claims 100 union jobs could be lost within a two- or three-mile radius since the Supercenter is projected to claim $16.3 million annually in local food purchases.

The economic impact analysis on the project states that the project could bury at least one existing grocery store.

"Why do we need another Walmart?" questioned Jasmine Perez, who has worked at Save Mart for four years. Her employer is one of the Ceres grocery stores identified as possibly at risk by the presence of a Supercenter, according to an economic analysis done by Ray Kennedy in the environmental review process.

Mary Jane Scheuber asserted that a Supercenter would not offer any better prices than already found at stores like Food4Less and Cost Less Foods. She argued that closure of the existing Walmart would cause blight at Ceres' northern gateway.

Bob Gutierrez, a representative of Food4Less up Mitchell Road, said his store has enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with Walmart at its current location. He fears his store would lose customers drawn to the existing store.

A great number of supporters also spoke in favor of the application.

Mary Elkins, a 37-year Ceres resident, argued for the Supercenter, saying the store would prevent her from leaving town for cheaper groceries.

"We deserve this store," said Elkins.

"I have to go to Turlock to shop and get a good meal," said Julie Norton.

Social Security recipient Patricia Jones argued for the store, saying she has to shop in Modesto for cheaper groceries, adding "it's hard for people who live on fixed incomes."

Karen Mosser, a resident since 1958, said Walmart has always been supportive of worthy causes. That theme was repeated by Charlie Gross of the Ceres Partnership for Healthy Children and Cary Pope of the Ceres Chamber of Commerce.

According to city of Ceres Senior Planner Tom Westbrook, the proposed shopping center is an appropriate use for the general plan designation of Regional Commercial.

However, the size of the project triggered an economic impact component of the Environmental Impact Report. Some fear that Walmart adding a grocery store - and thereby claiming $16 million of area grocery dollars - other grocery stores would suffer. They say Walmart's claims of adding 85 new jobs to its Ceres associate base of 375 employees will be offset by jobs lost when, not if, other stores close.

Stockton attorney Brett Jolley, representing a group calling themselves "Citizens for Ceres," and who has filed lawsuits to stop Walmart expansions in Chico and Kerman, suggested that the EIR's analysis of blight was incomplete. He said the EIR does not deal with mitigation of closing stores. Citing increased traffic, degraded air quality and loss of agricultural land, Jolley said the city could not support the findings of Overriding Consideration.

He also stated that the city would not be gaining a growth in sales tax revenue.

An attorney hired by the city, said the project is more than adequate, that the findings may be made and reminded the commission that in addition to the new Walmart, Ceres would be gaining 100,000 square feet of additional retail sales tax producing business.

The center, once fully constructed, will bring an estimated 120 new jobs to Ceres. It's estimated that the Supercenter would be built first with other buildings in the center constructed in about five years.

Aside from the focus on the Supercenter, technical aspects of the project were discussed. Residents along Don Pedro Road at the project's northern boundary want the city to reject two access points to the center from their street. Truck deliveries to the back of the Supercenter would be channeled through the ingress and egress points along Don Pedro.

Lee Brittell, whose home would oppose one of two access points on Don Pedro Road, argued that truck deliveries would disrupt his peace and quiet and that of his neighbors. When he heard that some deliveries could be made as early as 4 a.m., Britell said, "That just thrills me to death."

The center is proposed to be accessible at two places on the east along Mitchell Road, and two points to the south along Service Road.

"I want to make sure that the board understands that I'm willing to stipulate that Walmart is a good neighbor," said Brittell. "What we're trying to do is minimize the impact to our neighborhood. That's what our concern is. Most of us are in favor of having Walmart there. Geez, it's going to be a great blessing to have that for the city of Ceres."

He went on to ask the city to consider Alternative #2, which placed the Supercenter at the southwest corner of the center. Brittell proposes getting the loading docks away from Don Pedro as well as eliminating the ingress and egress on Don Pedro Road.

In the 1960s, the city made Don Pedro Road a truck route, before many homes were constructed along that section. Brittell doesn't want trucks on his street and cited conflicts with residential uses as well as Lucas Elementary School when it is constructed in approximately five years.

Reorienting the Supercenter to the southwest will place truck access through Service Road or through a connection to El Camino Avenue.

Walmart officials say that noise from the loading docks near Don Pedro Road will not be a factor. Neufeld pointed out that the loading dock is partially below grade level and that trucks will be backing into dock seals to minimize unloading noises on outside. Also, trucks will not idle past three minutes and refrigeration units emit a low sound without need for trucks to be idling. In addition 10-foot wing walls will surround the loading dock. Behind the store will be a two-foot-tall earthen berm with an eight-foot-tall masonry wall to help capture noises.

Commissioners expressed concerns about aspects of the project, including impacts to Mitchell and Service roads, and blight that could occur if the Supercenter places other grocery stores out of business.

Commissioner Mike Kline expressed fears that the center would jam up Mitchell and Service roads until the Mitchell / Highway 99 interchange is completed.

"I have some grave concerns about traffic," said Kline.

Funding for the multi-million-dollar project may not be available for a decade or longer, noted City Engineer Glenn Gebhardt.

Laurie Smith, another member of the commission, had a laundry list of points she wants explored, including greater detail how Walmart would affect existing stores.

In answer to Sheri Jacobsen's criticism that Walmart is proposing a "plain Jane" cookie-cutter design for Ceres, Smith wants to see what other unique building designs could be offered.

"I'd like to see more of a variation in the elevation they're proposing for our community," said Smith, "as it is right off the freeway and it's going to inspire people to either stop or not stop and this is our one chance to make sure that piece of property has something that represents who we are as Ceres, not what somebody else wants us to be."

Smith also wants to examine design alternative #2 which backs the store up to the southwest corner rather than to Don Pedro Road.

The EIR suggests that changing the store footprint will have little affect of reducing noise.

Howard Martin of the engineering firm of GreenbergFarrow architectural firm of Irvine said the current configuration of the buildings is the "best overall use of the site."

"Somewhat like a jig-saw puzzle, the pieces simply won't fit in any other configuration," said Martin.

Smith was most vocal about how Walmart has kept its property, saying she is "disappointed" by the poor landscaping maintenance practices.

She concluded her remarks saying she is not necessarily opposed to the project.

Commission chairman Bob Kachel said he wants city staff to come back and give an analysis of how many jobs would be lost should Walmart bring on the closure of other stores.

"Economics are always a mine field in an EIR," commented Kachel.

Molina acknowledged the difficulty of the decision, saying both sides had valid arguments.

"I wish I could see everybody happy," said Molina.

Commissioner Gary Del Nero mentioned that there had been no talk of the impacts from the drive-through pharmacy.

Del Nero said he is not convinced the project will help Ceres' tax base.

Kachel said he wanted to hear more about traffic calming measures for Don Pedro Road.

Before Walmart could inhabit any new building, the City Council must sign onto the corporation's "Sales Strategy Plan" to get new tenants in the old building of 139,000 square feet.

The approval or rejection of a Conditional Use Permit and a Vesting Tentative Subdivision Map on April 4 will likely be appealed to the City Council.