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City gives direction on general plan policy issues
Signs, agriculture preservation are issues

The Ceres City Council was asked last week to provide policy direction arising from the updating of the Ceres General Plan.

The city is in the process of updating the plan, which was last crafted in 1997. A draft of the new General Plan is being written and environmental impact studies performed. The revamping effort caused city staff to raise four issues linked to the plan involving business signage, the roadway classification of Faith Home Road, the undergrounding of utilities and whether or not to pursue agriculture conservation mitigation.

Tom Westbrook, the city's Community Development Director, briefly explained the issues behind the four matters.

He said some in the community expressed a desire to have an agriculture mitigation program as the city continues to encroach on farmland for urban uses. "What that means I don't know," said Westbrook. "Folks just were interested in preserving some of our agricultural lands around the city."

He gave the council several options for agriculture mitigation. The the city could follow Newman's lead and create a voter-approved urban boundary limit, said Westbrook. Another option is coming up with a well-defined edge boundary on the east side, or drawing a hard line at Faith Home Road. The third option would be for the city to adopt an ag preservation policy. That typically means that when the city expands its sphere of influence or annexes land that each acre be matched with an ag easement elsewhere in the county, assuring that the same amount of land will always be committed for farming. Riverbank and Patterson have adopted such a policy while the city of Hughson enacts a two-to-one acre ag preservation requirement.

Ray Dias, a Faith Home Road resident, asked the council to not create a well-defined edge boundary. He asked for a gradual transition, such as ranchettes east of Faith Home Road.

Patricia Cousins agreed with Dias. She pointed out that the city's seal features agricultural fields and that the city should help preserve ag lands.

Norm Caulkins, whose family has been farming in the area of Service and Faith Home roads since 1903, argued for keeping the area as rural as possible.

Mayor Chris Vierra said he likes the idea of a 1:1 ratio of ag preservation mitigation as adopted by the county LAFCO, the Local Agency Formation Commission. Vice Mayor Mike Kline agreed. Councilwoman Linda Ryno said she would prefer to see any ag easements be placed on land near Ceres rather than some remote area of Stanislaus County.

Vierra commented that if voters defeat any measure calling for setting an urban boundary the city could wind up with no ag mitigation policy.

The council instructed staff to develop some alternatives for an ag preservation policy.

Westbrook offered that the city may want to adjust its recent crackdown on business signs.

"I think one of the ways we can increase our presence if we work toward the Service/Mitchell interchanges is perhaps maybe modernizing and giving some allowances for freeway signage, whether those be billboards, which are not currently permitted, or kind of more along the lines of taller monument signs that announce what would be the Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center, what would ultimately be Ceres Gateway Center," said Westbrook. "I do think that there's areas there that we can certainly improve on the Ceres sign code."

Mayor Vierra said the city needs to open its options. He said the city has a tough stance on signs, including not allowing an "old decrepit sign" to be replaced.

"I think that needs to change a little bit," said Vierra who voiced that wants staff to bring back signage options.

"I agree with the mayor," said Councilman Bret Durossette. "I think we don't necessarily want to be real limited." He suggested he would be open to electronic freeway billboards. "I see them in Sacramento, Stockton. I think they look great. Great advertising, great money for the city."

Ryno said she sees a problem allowing a limited number of A-frame signs in downtown when they are not allowed elsewhere.

Westbrook said the city has a good sign policy but could use refreshing.

Faith Home
Road classification
When the General Plan was adopted in 1997, Faith Home Road was designated as a future six-lane expressway. Since then the county has begun studies to connect Garner Road in Modesto to Faith Home Road via a new bridge, as the region pushes for a new truck route to bypass Mitchell Road. Both the county and the city of Modesto have Faith Home Road considered an expressway but likely won't need to be that wide. Staffs have been talking about reducing the size of that road from a six- to four-lane expressway and running traffic projection calculations. Westbrook asked the council to weigh in.

"I would like to remind you when you're planning things if you change the size of Faith Home to anything more than two lanes, you are going to just develop the whole area between Ceres and Hughson and it will not be farm land in the next 50 years," said Norm Caulkins.

Diaz said he is supportive of scaling back the planned width of the future Faith Home Road.

"I'm not a Pollyanna either," said Dias. "I understand you have some very hard decisions to make regarding transportation and I hope you make smart decisions."

About the classification for Faith Home Road, Patricia Cousins said "four is better than six but two is better than four. There's no need for acres and acres of more blacktop."

Mayor Vierra said he has no problems scaling Faith Home expressway down to a four-lane arterial.

Ryno asked where the truck traffic expected to use Faith Home as a shortcut from the Beard Industrial Tract to southbound Highway 99 would come out. City Manager Toby Wells noted the county's plan is to take it to Keyes Road where trucks would have to turn left to access the Keyes Road overpass onramps in either direction. It's generally believed that mostly southbound trucks would use the route.

Kline, who is a member of the StanCOG board, doesn't favor the expressway.

"I have a really difficult time with increasing it from two lanes to four lanes," said Kline. "Number one, I'm a little biased because I was raised out there at Faith Home and Whitmore. My grandparents had the old Victorian house ...The other thing, I do have a commercial truck license and thinking that trucks are going to go from Beard Industrial, across the bridge at Faith Home and take Faith Home all the way to Keyes (Road), make a left-hand turn at Keyes and Faith Home and come back to the freeway, I can't see that happening personally. It's more fuel for them and it's out of the way."

He added that truckers would dislike stopping for each stop sign along the way and shifting gears.

City staff appeared unsettled by Kline's comments, especially when he said, "Correct me if I'm wrong but Mitchell is not a truck route." He was set straight by Westbrook.

Vierra said Kline could advocate for the county not to build a new bridge at Faith Home as one way to thwart the expressway. But when Ryno asked Westbrook what the benefit to Ceres would be, he replied "to get the trucks off Hatch Road." Ryno suggested truckers are not going to use Faith Home to access the freeway - a statement that may be true when dealing with northbound lanes.

Kline insisted the stops along Faith Home would discourage truck traffic but Wells said generally expressways have limited intersections that are controlled.

"I say two lanes," Kline said, echoed by Ryno.

"If you say two lanes ... are you saying you want to leave truck traffic on Mitchell Road?" asked Wells. Kline replied, "Yes."

"That's a significant change to the environmental documents, a significant change to our 1997 General Plan, it's a complete different analysis," replied Wells.

In the end, the council agreed to study Faith Home at the two levels to determine how traffic and costs pencil out.

Undergrounding utilities
While new development is required to put in phone and electric utility services underground rather than on unsightly poles, the city doesn't have a policy about how to deal with existing overhead lines as infill projects develop. "There's no provision to underground those," Westbrook noted. The 1997 General Plan suggested that special districts be formed to underground utilities but they have never happened.

The city has been giving developers options to underground utilities at their expense, or pay into a district or sign a deferral agreement that they will contribute their fair share if future undergrounding occurs. Westbrook said the practice has "worked well."

Vierra suggested the city continue allowing staff to evaluate if undergrounding makes sense or not.

Wells gave the example of when Rite Aid went in on Mitchell Road, saying it didn't make sense to underground utilities on their parcel.

"To underground their frontage, you still have to put up two power poles ... so your net result was you spend several hundred thousand dollars to underground frontage but you end up with the same amount of poles and that's the problem throughout with these in-fill situations where you aren't able to do a long stretch and the likelihood of Mitchell Road is minimal."

Once adopted, the new General Plan is intended to guide the growth in Ceres through 2035.

According to projections, build-out of each alternative could support approximately a 50 percent increase in Ceres housing units, from the current 13,800 homes to 20,700 units. The growth plan alternatives may also result in four times the amount of existing office space, six times the commercial space, and two times the industrial space currently in the city. Westbrook said any of the three alternatives has the capacity to accommodate a 50 percent increase in Ceres' population of 47,000 and a 400 percent increase jobs.

Westbrook said that it is "very unlikely that any of these growth projections would be realized by the year 2035." How fast Ceres will develop depends on market and economic conditions which drive development in the public sector.