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Supercenter decision delayed
Those expecting a decision on the Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center with its anchor tenant of the Walmart Supercenter came away disappointed from Monday's Ceres City Council meeting.

A four-hour public hearing on an appeal of a Planning Commission approval of the project ended with no decision other than to continue the matter to 5:30 p.m. on Monday, July 11.

Walmart seeks approval to develop a 26-acre shopping center at the northwest corner of Service and Mitchell roads with a 185,668-square-foot Supercenter that would sell groceries. Opening a new Supercenter would result in a vacancy at its existing store at Hatch and Mitchell roads. Besides the Walmart Supercenter, plans call for 10 other retail shops totaling 114,162 square feet, including three other major tenants and four smaller shops as well as a stand-alone retail building and two to three new restaurants. The parking lot would accommodate 1,200 vehicles.

On April 11 the commission approved a conditional use permit (CUP) for the sale of alcohol, approved a vesting subdivision map and an architectural site plan.

Attorney Brett Jolley of Stockton, who represents a group calling themselves "Citizens for Ceres," delivered a last-minute challenge to the extensive environmental impact analysis of the project. The new challenge prompted a five-minute huddle of city staff who said they need more time to address Jolley's concerns.

"That letter could have been delivered and answered months ago," later commented Marko Mlikotin of River City Communications, a public relations firm working with Walmart. He called Jolley's move a delay tactic.

Jolley argued that he didn't feel the city can make the findings to approve a CUP. He stated that the center with its traffic and truck deliveries would be "detrimental" to Don Pedro residents. Jolley also stated that the subdivision could not be approved because of significant impacts to air quality, health and safety and blight reasons.

Jolley, who has fought the expansion of Walmart throughout California, said deferring the re-tenanting agreement to a later date - it must be approved by the council before building permits are issued - does not comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

"You must also make findings that all of the project's significant impacts have been adequately addressed by the mitigation measures," said Jolley. "I would suggest these findings cannot be made." He specifically said the valley's air pollution control district concerns were inadequately addressed. Walmart attorneys insist that the health risk assessment in the EIR is adequate. Jolley also notes that the EIR lacks in its analysis of the project's waste output.

"I just want to emphasize that the EIR before you is the result of many years of hard work by staff," said attorney Elizabeth Anderson of Sheppard Mullin, a firm hired by Walmart. "Contrary to what the opposition would like you believe, CEQA does not require perfection. It does not require all experts to agree; if it did you would never be able to certify an EIR."

Ceres city Senior Planner Tom Westbrook expressed more than once his complete confidence in the thoroughness of the EIR. He said the process took so long because the city was careful to cover all issues to comply with CEQA.

Councilmembers postponed the matter to delve into issues raised by Jolley but also had a few concerns of their own which needs research. Specific questions and concerns included:

• Councilman Guillermo Ochoa who wants to know if the project can be modified to limit truck access from Service Road instead of Don Pedro Road;

• Vice Mayor Ken Lane who wants the city to have "teeth" if Walmart fails to find a tenant for its existing building if it remains vacant too long; and who is concerned that one left turn lane for northbound Mitchell Road onto westbound Service Road is not enough. Lane also wondered about the completeness of the economic impact component of the EIR.

The hearing mostly drew the same speakers and same comments expressed at a five-hour Planning Commission meeting on Feb. 22 and a four-hour hearing on April 4. The commission voted 3-1 to approve the project, however the decision was appealed by the Citizens group. The group, led by Sherri Jacobsen, claims the project will harm existing Ceres grocers and has criticized a Supercenter as being a star attraction for Ceres' southern gateway. She also slammed Walmart as "thumbing their nose at this community" when it didn't act on a commission expression that it would like to see other architectural designs and offered their "cookie cutter design" instead.

The EIR suggests that Walmart could threaten the livelihood of at least one existing grocer.

Bob Gutierrez of Food 4 Less said his company is opposed to the project because being located across the street from the existing Walmart brings in business. But others, like Arturo Lopez who opened a furniture east of the Supercenter project site, said he wants the project as a magnet to his store.

A litany of persons spoke saying Walmart can offer better food prices to struggling families. Others dislike the project for other reasons. James Vineyard said the new center's landscaping would be substandard like the existing store but manage Richard Woodwell said he is working on improving the appearance of landscaping. Marsha

"Some of us will even have trouble exiting from our driveways," said Lee Brittell, a Don Pedro Avenue resident who likes Walmart but not the location.

"We want something more for Ceres," said Don Pedro Road resident Florence Cardenas, who prefers the Supercenter to back up to the freeway and face Mitchell Road. She also said the 24-hour Supercenter would draw crime on her street.

Some expressed concerns that Walmart will not allow competitors like Target or WinCo to use its existing building. Walmart representative Amelia Neufeld said selling the building to competitors would present an unfair advantage against Walmart.

"We don't feel believe we should be obligated to subsidize our competitors' entry in the marketplace," said Neufeld. "Our current store and the land it sits on is worth millions of dollars and utilizing our existing building at a much lower cost than having a ground-up development would offer them an unfair competitive advantage."

City Attorney Mike Lyions said the city cannot legally force Walmart to offer specific retailers. Walmart store representatives pointed out that nationwide vacated stores have been filled by such companies as Kohl's, Petco, OSH, Ross, Pier 1 Imports, Petsmart, Sears, Lowe's, Dick's Sporting Goods, Bed Bath & Beyond, Hobby Lobby, Marshalls, Macy's, Office Depot, Fry's, Jo-Ann, BevMo!, Dillards, T.J. Maxx and Cost Plus World Market.