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Supercenter fight over
Citizens for Ceres skips Supreme Court
An artist rendering shows how the Walmart Supercenter might look once built facing Service Road just west of Mitchell Road. The store will back up to Don Pedro Road. - photo by Contributed to the Courier

Walmart has won its nearly decade-old fight to build a new Supercenter in Ceres.

After dogging the proposed Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center and its anchor tenant of the Walmart Supercenter for nine years, the opposition group "Citizens for Ceres" did not file the last possible appeal with the California State Supreme Court.

While the 26-acre shopping center is nearly cleared for building permits, city officials are unwilling to pop the cork on the champagne bottles until Dec. 5. According to City Manager Toby Wells, the State Supreme Court itself could decide to review a lower court ruling on the "Citizen" case on its own - something he sees as highly unlikely.

"The only thing we're waiting on now is the California Supreme Court actually has the option of pulling that themselves and they have until Dec. 4 to do that," Wells announced at Monday's City Council meeting. "Once that date passes, on Dec. 5, the CEQA portion of that case will be officially and completely over which would allow the complete moving forward of the project."

"Citizens" has contended that the exhaustive environmental review process leading up to project approval had not met the legal requirement but none of the judges who heard the case bought into the argument. City officials expected "Citizens for Ceres," which had lost two legal roadblocks of the 26-acre shopping center since its approval by the Ceres City Council in 2011, to challenge the last court decision to the state's highest court. It didn't happen by the Nov. 14 deadline.

On Sept. 12 the Fifth District Court of Appeals in Fresno ruled against an appeal lodged by "Citizens" after the Stanislaus County Superior Court rejected their 2014 legal challenge of the shopping center. It also ruled that "Citizens" must pay the $47,000 for the costs of producing the administrative record required when "Citizens" took Walmart and the city to court. The action upset Sherri Jacobson, leader of the group. She said the court decision "will now give rich developers even more control over land use issues by allowing them to dictate the cost of the administrative record -- this issue alone would not have been enough to overturn the project approvals. From here on out, the cost for the public to obtain evidence may be so prohibitive that the rights of the average American could be drastically obstructed."

She said "Citizens" will have a chance to fight the cost issue in the Stanislaus County Superior Court "since Walmart still wants to charge our group nearly $50,000, an outrageous amount for photocopying of the city's files and emails."

Jacobson hinted that her group will press for policy changes in the state.

"Members of our group found evidence that shows that air pollution is tied to diseases like dementia, and this was not addressed in layman's terms in the Environmental Impact Report," she wrote in a press release. "We believe the effects of air quality on human health should be addressed more fully in all EIRs and is worthy of policy discussion. We may seek other means to see that clear discussion of the impact of air pollution will be identified and addressed in California, going forward. We just won't be doing it in the Supreme Court."

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.

The city has spoken to a Walmart engineer who said they are "working on it, but we don't know what that means yet," said Wells.

"That they contacted us is a good sign," added Wells. "Once we get to meet with them we'll have a better feel. We're anxious, of course."

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.

City officials are anticipating the construction of a 26-acre shopping center will resemble Monte Vista Crossings in Turlock at Ceres' southern gateway. City of Ceres Community Development Director Tom Westbrook said if Walmart hasn't already designed the shopping center, 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 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.