In an about-face to the Ceres Planning Commission, members of the Ceres City Council voted 4-1 on Monday evening to give the controversial annexation of 97 acres on the east side a chance to proceed.
Earlier this month the Planning Commission voted 3-1 to recommend that the City Council not even consider a conceptual land use plan for a proposed annexation of the land south of Whitmore Avenue between La Rosa Elementary and Cesar Chavez Junior High Schools and Moore Road. Commissioners generally felt Ceres is not ready for the potential influx of 1,475 new residents that the Whitmore Ranch Specific Plan could bring. They cited impacts of growth on police and fire services, neighboring agricultural operations and water availability.
The council reviewed the conceptual plan to develop the 97 acres with the building of approximately 290 single-family homes, and apartment units numbering between 164 and 205.
The property cannot develop if it remains in the unincorporated county jurisdiction and would have to be approved for annexation through the Stanislaus Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) before building may take place. The annexation would include both La Rosa Elementary and Cesar Chavez Junior High School as well as take lands presently zoned for agricultural use.
The conceptual plan shows:
• 22 acres for low-density residential uses, on a typical lot size of 50 feet by 100 feet;
• 9.5 acres of medium-density residential uses, with typical lot size of 40 feet by 75 feet;
• 5.3 acres of high-density apartment or condo uses that could be two or three stories high;
• 9.5 acres of open space, including a bike and pedestrian corridor leading to the junior high's western boundary.
"We must have the land use concept identified before we can start the real fun, which is the environmental impact report," explained Tom Westbrook, city of Ceres Director of Community Development.
He reminded the council that the annexation is being initiated and funded by a developer and is within the city's primary sphere of influence. Westbrook said annexation seems orderly because at the eastern end sit both schools, of which La Rosa Elementary was built in 2005. Currently the schools sit in county jurisdiction yet the city supplies services to them. The city committed in the future to bring the campuses into the city limits when it originally agreed to supply water and sewer service to them.
Westbrook indicated that the city's recent upgrade of sewer trunks down Mitchell Road to Service Road were in part to accommodate growth on Ceres' east side.
Subdivisions created by the annexation would be subject to a Community Facilities District to help pay for police, fire and park services. Some on the council feared the mitigation may not be enough, however.
No member of the council expressed an interest in seeing the smaller residential lots, with Councilman Ken Lane suggesting minimum lot sizes of 6,200 square feet rather than 5,000. The council also does not wish to see apartments and/or condos at three stories high, despite rural resident Jeanie Knox suggesting that Ceres "build upward, not outward."
Norm Caulkins, who farms at Faith Home and Roeding roads, said he opposes any development that impacts his family operation as well as wildlife. He claims Whitmore Ranch is too close to the approach zone of the Modesto Airport.
"If you walk out in this area, as I farm in that area, there are planes going over it constantly," said Caulkins. "In my memory within a mile a big plane went down in the past. There was also a plane that crashed real close to (Sam Vaughn) before it was (Sam Vaughn). In my opinion high density housing, schools, anything on that area is a disaster waiting to happen."
Patricia Melugin Cousins, whose family has lived on Roeding Road for over a century, protested the annexation. She said the project violates many of the guiding principles used to create the new General Plan. Cousins said the city needs to infill first.
She said water is become scarce and adding more neighborhoods will decrease the groundwater table. "Both the surface water from the river and the groundwater are very, very precious, limited resources," said Cousins. "We don't need more people fighting for those resources."
Cousins also mentioned that encroaching on farmland is not a way of maintaining Ceres' agricultural identity.
"We need to keep the prime ag land that's supporting us, California, a lot of the United States and overseas," said Jeanie Knox. "If the city focused more on running upward and not outward I think we could come up with better use of the land we have."
Leonard Shepherd cited how adding people adds pressure on the demand for water, police and fire.
Dave Johnson argued against more residences, saying, "We can't ask the guys (police and fire) to take this on. We can't even keep per capita the officers and everything we need on the street and it's not going to get no better in the next five years."
Jay Cargill, a Whitmore Avenue resident neighboring La Rosa Elementary, said he favors the development, adding, "My farming is about to run to the end for my age."
Alyssa Long, who hails from the Superior Fruit Ranch family with an extensive farming background, suggested the city should not encroach on farmland.
"You've already annexed land (on the west side) and done nothing to it," said Long.
Westbrook said of the 960-acre West Landing Specific Plan and Annexation, 320 acres is already developed with county facilities, leaving a balance of 640 acres, 200 which are earmarked for commercial and business park. The rest, or about 440 acres, would be for residential housing.
Lourdes Perez, a member of the Ceres School Board who represents the Ceres Partnership Family Resource Center, said the project would assist with the Safe Routes to School project. Currently students are forced to walk on the sidewalks on the north side of Whitmore Avenue to access both schools which are located south of Whitmore Avenue. There are no sidewalks on the southern portion where development would take place. Regardless if Whitmore Ranch develops, grant funding has been acquired to construct curb, gutter and sidewalk on the south side of Whitmore Avenue next year.
She said the project would also give greater access by connecting Eastgate Boulevard to a planned extension of Standford Avenue.
Bob Mays, who owns land in the annexation area, called the conceptual design "cutting edge."
"We thought it was overdue for development 10 years ago," said Mays.
Councilman Bret Durosette said Ceres schools have such a good reputation that people are drawn in but "there's not enough houses."
"I never thought that the city of Ceres would build out to Faith Home Road, as they did in Eastgate," said Vice Mayor Mike Kline. "But what would somebody expect when two schools are built in the county? Wouldn't you expect, sooner or later, housing's going to come out there?"
Councilmember Linda Ryno voted "no" on the project advancing but said she wrestled with the pros and cons.
"The people that live in Ceres now, what benefit is it to them to have an impact on our existing services by having these additional folks come in?" said Ryno.
She added, though, that she didn't think it would be fair to tell the developer to start planning when the council has no intention of approving it at a later date.
When it came to a vote, she could not go along, saying how stretch services already are, including police, fire and code enforcement.
"We need to do more about code enforcement. Ceres is not improving in actuality," said Ryno. "To me it looks like it's going downhill from when I moved here 34 years ago and I just don't know that putting another subdivision in is going to lessen that."
"It does fit the area," said Lane. "You've got schools there now."
Lane especially likes that Eastgate Boulevard would be extended through to an extension of Standford Avenue. Parents who drop off their kids at both schools face a bottleneck created by a dead-end Eastgate Boulevard. Cars would also be able to circulate through the new development as well, he noted.
Mayor Chris Vierra, an engineer by trade, said he was disturbed to read comments made by Planning Commissioners "that our infrastructure needs improvement." Couper Condit was among them.
"I take a little bit of offense to that because it has been a charge of this council for at least seven years that infrastructure our most valuable charge moving forward," said Vierra. "We are second to none when it comes to our capital improvement projects related to sewer, water and storm drainage."
Vierra said he could support Whitmore Ranch "but not the way it is." He specifically called for more curvilinear streets and larger lots. He said he does not like the medium-density residential and high-density residential but would not mind seeing attractive options.
"I don't see how some of this layout works with residential lots up against a roundabout," said Vierra.
He called for a refinement through a subcommittee of councilmembers to work with the developer.
Westbrook said the Environmental Impact Report process could take 12 months and wouldn't be back before the city panels for a final decision for 12-15 months. The annexation would then have to be approved by the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO).
The project would have to face ag mitigation, which calls for a 1:1 replacement of the lost ag land with permanent set-asides of farm land.