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Supercenter OK'd
The Walmart Supercenter and accompanying 26-acre Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center was given a green light by the Ceres City Council Monday evening after months of public hearings.

Council members Ken Lane, Bret Durossette and Guillermo Ochoa voted unanimously to reject an appeal of a Planning Commission approval of the center. A group calling themselves Citizens for Ceres asked the council to overturn the commission's approval of the shopping center for the northwest corner of Mitchell and Service roads.

The center will be anchored with a 185,668-square-foot Walmart Supercenter that will cut into the local grocery market. The center will serve as a southern gateway project to include 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 council focussed Monday on Walmart's proposed plan to re-tenant the existing 130,000-square-foot store at Hatch and Mitchell roads which is slated to be vacated when the Supercenter opens. Lane would not support the reuse plan on Aug. 22, but agreed to join city staff to negotiate a new reuse plan with Walmart. Lane said he was interested in having Walmart or any future owner be held to a maintenance standard for the abandoned Walmart store.

On Monday the council retreated from forcing Walmart to make its store available to competitors. The original reuse agreement called for Walmart to make its store available to competitors if it could not find a new tenant within 12 months. Lane said the restriction would have likely forced Walmart to sell its building and possibly sit vacant.

The reuse plan approved Monday calls for Walmart to:

• Actively market the abandoned store;

• Provide a list of competitors it won't allow in the building. The list is expected to include Target, Winco, and Costco.

• Maintain the closed store property, keeping landscaping maintained and removing any graffiti or blight conditions.

Sherri Jacobsen of the Citizens for Ceres group, made one last appeal for rejecting the project.

"Citizens for Ceres opposes this project and believes not only is it bad for the community but the City Council has every right and in fact every obligation to deny this project based on its significant environmental impacts," said Jacobson.

She said a $25,000 bond to ensure the city could enforce blight removal of the vacated store "does not mitigate the risk of that building sitting vacant for years." She noted that the city of Lodi obtained a $750,000 bond to mitigate a closed Walmart store there.

Jacobson suggested the council make the reuse plan part of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) mitigation measures. However, Senior Planner Tom Westbrook said elements of the reuse plan came directly from the EIR.

Attorney Brett Jolley, representing Citizens, said the Walmart reuse plan falls short. He said the issue goes beyond keeping the building free of graffiti but keeping the intersection a vibrant part of the Ceres economy.

Citing court cases, Jolley also challenged the council's authority to take a vote on the project. He suggesting the council's "failed motion to approve the project" on Aug. 22 was an "effective denial of the project." City Attorney Michael Lyions, however, opined that the council did not take action on Aug. 22 since it was unable to come up with three votes for or against the project. The council merely continued the public hearing, he said.

Archcliffe Drive resident Marsha Harris both \asked the council to deny the project and continue fighting for "teeth" to enforce the reuse plan saying Walmart was only "reciting promises."

Durossette said he trusted Walmart would do its best to fill the vacany building, saying the company has been "a good neighbor" since coming to Ceres in the early 1990s. He asked Ceres residents to continue supporting existing grocery stores.

"I know I won't change my shopping habits," said Durossette.

He said he wants to see a council study session to sit down with Walmart on the best strategy to fill the old store.

The soonest a Walmart Supercenter could open in Ceres would be 18 months, said Lane. It's unknown if Jolley will fight the project in court. If that happens, said Lane, the shopping center may not become a reality for another three or four years.