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Round #3 for Walmart foes?
An artist rendering of the Walmart Supercenter within the proposed Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center. - photo by Contributed to the Courier

Monday is the last day that opponents of the Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center have to file their anticipated next in a series of roadblocks for construction of the new Walmart Supercenter.

So far, city officials have not heard if "Citizens for Ceres" plan to lay down the gauntlet or continue in their fight which they have waged for close to a decade.

"We won't know what they will do," said Ceres City Manager Toby Wells. "They don't talk to us. I fully expect them to file."

He predicts the group will file for action on the last day, "true to form for those guys."

The Courier contacted "Citizens" leader Sheri Jacobson for a statement. She replied that "We are still determining which issues we may ask the court to review. Obviously the administrative records costs (based on conflict of law created) and air quality (based on the well-written concurrence) would seem to spark the most interest in review by the court. We won't hazard to guess how they would treat these issues or others at this time."

"Citizens for Ceres" has lost two legal roadblocks of the 26-acre shopping center since its approval by the Ceres City Council in 2011.

The Fifth District Court of Appeals in Fresno ruled on Sept. 12 against an appeal lodged by "Citizens" after the Stanislaus County Superior Court rejected their 2014 legal challenge of the shopping center.

Walmart has been waiting since 2007 to build the new and bigger store at the northwest corner of Service and Mitchell roads. Plans are to close the store at Hatch and Mitchell and re-tenant the building.

If "Citizens" files a petition with the California State Supreme Court, the justices would then have until Dec. 14 to decide whether or not to agree to hear their argument. It's unlikely the state's highest court will hear the case since it accepts only a small percentage of petitions, said City Attorney Tom Hallinan. If the Supreme Court denies the petition for review, the Court of Appeal disposition governs the case and further appeal in a California state court is precluded.

At that point Walmart could proceed with obtaining building permits and commencing with construction.
"Citizens" contends that the exhaustive environmental review process leading up to approval has not met the law but no judges have bought into their argument.

The Fifth District Court of Appeals heard two cases - Citizens' appeal of the lower court ruling; and the matter of who pays for the cost of producing the administrative review required in the Citizens' case held in Modesto. The Superior Court ruled that Walmart should eat the $41,000 in costs but Walmart appealed the decision with the Court of Appeals saying Citizens should pay. The language of the ruling was vague.

"When they wrote the decision they just basically said the respondents are awarded costs," explained Wells. "Well, there's too separate case here so they didn't clarify the difference between the two cases when they wrote decisions. You could have interpreted that though Citizens lost on the cost issue they got money, so our attorney said ‘we need that fixed.'"

Now that "Citizens" is close to running out the clock, city officials are anticipating the construction of a 26-acre shopping center that would resemble Monte Vista Crossings in Turlock at Ceres' southern gateway. City of Ceres Community Development Director Tom Westbrook said he's doubtful if Walmart has already designed the shopping center due to the extensive delays caused by Citizens. Architectural designs could take a month or two with construction permits issued within six months. Construction could take nine to 12 months with the store and parts of the center opening in the early part of 2018.

The project would fill a large vacant parcel west of Mitchell Road near Highway 99, between Service Road and Don Pedro Road.

The Walmart Supercenter building itself is large - 185,668 square feet - but the center also includes:

• Major retailer #2 - 28,000 square feet;

• Major retailer #3 - 13,500 square feet;

• Major retailer #4 - 14,000 square feet;

• Shop #1 - 12,200 square feet;

• Shop #2 - 11,700 square feet;

• Shop #3 - 7,000 square feet;

• Shop #4 - 8,500 square feet;

• Retail pad A - 3,250 square feet;

• Restaurant pad A - 3,250 square feet;

• Restaurant pad B - 3,000 square feet;

• Restaurant pad C - 4,000 square feet.

Grand total = 299,830 square feet.

City officials believe the center could attract restaurants offered elsewhere, such as Chili's, Applebee's or Red Robbin. In 2012 Ronald Caselli of Applebee's corporate headquarters in San Jose offered support of Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center in a letter to the city. "In addition to our support, we would also like to express interest in opening an Applebee's Family Restaurant at the same location, and feel like Walmart, we also could make positive contributions to the local community," wrote Caselli.

The economic analyst in the EIR, Bay Area Economics (BAE) concluded that the center, at build-out, would result in sales tax revenue of $34 million annually, an increase of about $327,000 extra each year to the city of Ceres.

Jacobson and members of her group have fought the project since its inception, beginning with claims that the development of the vacant lot would rob wildlife of its habitat and protesting removal of a dilapidated building on the site. She and members of her group have lodged protests over planned store hours, architectural renderings, impacts on traffic, crime and air quality, plans to re-tenanting of the old store and claims that the new center would cause economic blight citywide.