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Annexation dead on arrival?
Proposed development to build homes for 1,495 in east Ceres meets with stiff resistance
Annexation map
This conceptual plan for development of 97 acres to be annexed to the city of Ceres shows how homes would be constructed south of Whitmore Avenue between Moore Road and Cesar Chavez Junior High School. - photo by Contributed to the Courier

A proposed development of 97 acres in east Ceres that could result in 1,475 new residents met with stiff opposition by area residents and farmers, prompting the Ceres Planning Commission to recommend that the City Council not consider approving the Whitmore Ranch Specific Plan.

The commission's 3-1 vote was a rare move following a one-hour public hearing that drew a vocal opposition from mostly neighbors who didn't want the city encroaching on farming operations. The City Council will review the project at 6 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 24.

The panel reviewed the conceptual plan to annex and develop 97 acres to the city of Ceres with the building of 290 single-family homes, and apartment units numbering between 164 and 205. The Whitmore Ranch Specific Plan shows how the land south of Whitmore Avenue, west of Cesar Chavez Junior High School and east of Moore Road would be filled with new housing.

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 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.

The project proposes smaller single-family residential lots designed to be more visually pleasing neighborhoods without garages dominating street vistas.

A unique feature of the conceptual plan is a linear park-like green space strip that runs in the interior with two roundabouts that would serve one-way vehicle and pedestrian traffic going in either direction. A similar design is found in Oakdale's Bridal Ridge development. Community Development Director Tom Westbrook recommended that a proposed 1.1-acre park strip in the southeast portion be eliminated in favor of larger single-family residential lots. He said the entire project already exceeds the park space required in the General Plan, noting 5.8 acres are needed but 9.5 acres offered.

Lourdes Perez, a member of the Ceres School Board who represented 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.

Dave Pratt complained that the project would further impact traffic on Whitmore Avenue.

Leonard Shepherd said he is not opposed to the project but voiced concerns about whether the city can provide water and sewer service as well as police and fire services to the new development.

"What we need to know is how are we going to support them, fire and police emergency services, how are we going to support them with water and sewer system?" asked Shepherd. "After five years of drought and a bunch of other things that have been thrown at the San Joaquin Valley, we still need to think in the future about the availability of water and about how much sewage is going to be produced by these 1,400 people."

Jeanie Knox, a Roeding Road resident whose family farms 40 acres of land, protested.

"I would ask the city to stop annexing prime quality land," said Knox. "Please stop moving east onto prime sandy loam soil. We've been farming for over 40 years and we have neighbors that along with us want to continue to farm this prime soil."

She reminded the commission that a section of Eastgate is still vacant which could support higher density condos.

Patricia Melugin Cousins, whose family has lived on Roeding Road for decades, protested the project, citing widespread blight in Ceres and the impending war over surface water.

"Forget the whole project and go back on the west side where you already have a project going," said Cousins, referencing the 2012 West Landing Annexation of 960 acres where no development has taken place.

Norm Caulkins who farms at Faith Home and Roeding roads, said he opposes expansion of the city limits on the east side, citing loss of farmland and wildlife. He said the presence of two nearby schools - which he also opposed - has hampered his ability to freely apply pesticides and that he has to check on outdoor activities first before applying chemicals. Adding housing would only further impact his ability to farm, he said.

Jay Cargill, a 45-year resident of the area, was also opposed on account of traffic.

Commissioner Couper Condit said he shared the concerns of those who spoke.

"We have an infrastructure problem in Ceres," said Couper. "We haven't kept up with our traffic and that's something our new General Plan needs to look at."

He said he's adamant in protecting farmland.

"I know we need to grow too but we need a balance," said Condit. "In Ceres we're unbalanced. Our job to resident ratio, it's one to five. We have one job per every five residents. In Turlock and Modesto, it's three to one. We need to fix it. We can't fix it with just adding more houses. Until we change our way of thing, we're going to keep going down the same road that we've been going on. We're going to be a bedroom community for Modesto, for Turlock and for the Bay area."

Commissioners were asked what they felt about the proposed site layout and what could be improved. Laurie Smith said she preferred to see larger single-family residential lots. She also wanted to know who would be maintaining the paseo, something that would be addressed at a later date.

Condit also interjected that he spoke to county Supervisor Jim DeMartini, who sits on the LAFCO board, and the feeling is Ceres has already annexed too much land.

"He's opposed to this project," said Condit of DeMartini. "He said Ceres has gone around annexing land for the last decade and we haven't done much with it. And we still have a lot of houses that aren't built in Eastgate, for example, and we have the West Landing Specific Plan nothing's got done on."

Condit motioned for the commission to recommend the council not consider the application, saying it was a wrong time. Smith seconded the motion. Condit, Smith and Hugo Molina voted against the project while Gary Del Nero was the dissenting vote. Commissioner Bob Kachel was not present.