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Pallet pile must go
• Ceres Planning Commission cites blight, fire hazards
Wood pallet stacks
Large stacks of pallets on the Ceres Drive-in property west of Highway 99 will not be allowed to exist. - photo by Jeff Benziger

A large stack of wooden pallets that began appearing years ago west of Highway 99 is not only unsightly but also a fire hazard and must go, the Ceres Planning Commission ruled on Monday.

The commission voted 4-0 to deny a request of Efrain Gonzalez of Gonzalez Pedestals of Turlock, for a conditional use permit to continue operations.

Gonzalez failed to obtain city approval to begin storing pallets on a portion of the Ceres Flea Market property in the industrial tract just northeast of the Hil-Mor Drive & Fairview Drive intersection. 

The Ceres Flea Market has been operating at 1651 E. Whitmore Avenue for decades, and the last time the flea market management updated their Conditional Use Permit was in May 2013 when looking to expand days and hours of operation and include additional activities with the reopening of the drive-in theater. There was a change in property ownership in 2018 and the new owner has kept the flea market going, but that use has seen a decline in vendors and customers over the past couple of years. To make ends meet, the owner decided to pave the area to create a truck and trailer parking terminal in mid-2019 at the northwest and north end of the site. Truck terminals are permitted by-right in the M-2, General Industrial zone. The flea market remains with limited activity at the south end of the property.

Between August 2019 and May 2020, the property owner began using the middle part of the site for storing pallets without first obtaining a CUP. After receiving a complaint and investigating this unpermitted use, Ceres Code Enforcement issued a Notice of Violation, and the applicant contacted the city to discuss legal operation a pallet storage yard. The applicant was told that a pallet storage yard requires a CUP, but that it would prove difficult to win approval due to aesthetic issues and potential fire hazards that often come with a collection of pallets. The city has held off on code enforcement efforts to remove the pallets pending the commission’s decision.

Modesto Fire Department, the city’s contract fire service provider, has inspected the site multiple times to ensure the best practices are followed to reduce the risk of fire hazards. Those practices were not followed and the stacks have not been separated.

Before the commission voted against the application, fire department officials offered a number of conditions to reduce fire risks, including limiting pallet stacks to no taller than 10 feet with no more than 20 pallets per stack; and that piles could not be more than 400 square feet in area. 

Senior Planner James Michaels opined that the use permit “can be supported as the applicant is willing to comply with these conditions.”

Kevin Wise, a chief with the Modesto Fire, told commissioners that pallet storage presents a common fire threat.

Commissioner Bob Kachel said he was prepared to vote no because he disputed city staff’s assertion that the application was categorically exempt from CEQA review. CEQA stands for California Environmental Quality Act.

“There are at least two environmental issues here – aesthetics and fire protection,” said Kachel. “To me this should be subject to a CEQA review. I have trouble going ahead with it.”

Several citizens spoke against the pallet storage.

John Warren said that the business owner wasn’t just storing pallets but repairing them and reselling them, and that he has “demonstrated his noncompliance attitudes regarding the conditions of the city over the two plus years and several months after being noted by not following the code enforcement and fire department requirements. For these reasons alone the permit should not be granted.”

Renee Ledbetter, a local real estate agent and Ceres Chamber of Commerce official, spoke on her own behalf against the project.

“This location is highly visible to drivers along Highway 99 – this is not an image that we as a city should want to portray, one of stacks of pallets and other junk that the owners may want to store,” said Ledbetter. She called for Ceres to elevate its standards when it comes to aesthetics “and not just accept any type of business that can’t find a location elsewhere.”

She noted that the wrecking yard west of 99 north of Service Road is slowly reducing inventory as the city begins working toward a new freeway interchange and that it would be a mistake “to replace one eyesore with another.” 

Ledbetter cited a recent large pallet fire in Sacramento that tied up resources of 10 departments for hours. She said a fire next to 99 would present serious problems for traffic and possibly spread to homes across the freeway.

Jim Shade, an architect hired by the company, argued that the piles would be stored appropriately so “certainly it would not be the fire hazard that it has been in the past.”

Before she resigned from office earlier this year, then City Councilwoman Linda Ryno complained that city staff wasn’t doing anything about the eyesore.