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Supercenter wins OK
The 26-acre Mitchell Road Shopping Center with anchor tenant Walmart Supercenter was given the green light by the Ceres Planning Commission Monday in a 3-1 vote.

The approval, however, hardly clears the way for construction. City officials expect an appeal on the decision to be filed to put the matter before the Ceres City Council. If past performance in other communities is any indication, the Ceres project - pegged for the northwest corner of Mitchell and Service roads - can expect to face a legal challenge by Stockton attorney Brett Jolley who has a reputation of fighting Walmart expansions in California.

Monday's decision came after a four-hour continuation of the five-hour Planning Commission hearing on Feb. 22.

Commissioners Bob Kachel, Gary Del Nero and Hugo Molina voted in favor of Walmart's application for a conditional use permit, vesting tentative subdivision map, site plan and approved the extensive Environmental Impact Report. Commissioner Mike Kline expressed continued concerns about traffic impacts, especially given that improvements to the Mitchell/Service/99 interchange won't become a reality for at least 10 to 20 years.

Kline also rejected the notion that the project will result in more tax dollars for Ceres, especially if there is a long delay in building out the center.

"We're basically, with phase I...swapping out tax dollars," argued Kline.

Commissioner Laurie Smith was absent due to illness.

"It does meet the requirements of the city to move on with the project," commented Molina.

Gary Del Nero said he liked the center's design in commenting on the "Welcome to Ceres" monument sign at Ceres' southern gateway.

"This is kind of something I want to see coming into Ceres," said Del Nero. "This is something we can be proud of here."

He also said the presence of the Supercenter would not prevent him or others from shopping at established grocery stores.

If Walmart prevails, the national retail giant will close its store at Hatch and Mitchell roads and relocate to a 185,668-square-foot Walmart Supercenter with 36,167 square feet devoted to grocery sales.

The vote drew cheers from the audience, which was mostly devoid of the boisterous anti-Walmart crowd that appeared on Feb. 22. At least one member of the public, Lee Brittell expressed his displeasure when he strode up to the dias and told the commissioners, "Thanks for protecting our neighborhood."

Brittell represented Don Pedro Avenue residents who wanted the shopping center to be constructed with no access points to the project. Brittell said he fears truck deliveries and customer cars will degrade quality of life on his street.

The center is proposed with two access driveways on Don Pedro, two spots on the east along Mitchell Road, and two points to the south along Service Road.

Commission chairman Bob Kachel expressed his "disappointment" that Walmart did not produce other possible building designs. The company instead asked the commission to check out the new Atwater Supercenter and suggested that building is a lot like the one proposed for Ceres. Kachel likes the building but suggested that the corporation add rock veneer on the facade framing two customer entry points on the building.

Representatives of Walmart stood by their assertion Monday that the center could be not be configured in such a way to reorient the back of Walmart toward the west. Howard Hardin of the engineering firm of GreenbergFarrow said the center would not be "economically feasible" if shifted around because of a loss of space for other major retailer buildings.

As designed the Walmart Supercenter will face Service Road to be visible from northbound Highway 99 traffic. The back of the store, with its loading docks, will back up to Don Pedro Road, which is currently a truck route but mostly residential in nature.

Walmart officials say that noise from the loading docks should not be an issue since the docks will be partially below grade level and that trucks will be backing into dock seals to minimize unloading noises on outside. Also, trucks will not idle past three minutes and refrigeration units emit a low sound without need for trucks to be idling. In addition 10-foot wing walls will surround the loading dock. Behind the store will be a two-foot-tall earthen berm with an eight-foot-tall masonry wall to help capture noises.

Jolley was one of the final speakers. He urged planners had to reject the EIR on his assertion that it did not address mitigating blight in the community that may result from losing other retailers and closing the existing store at Hatch and Mitchell.

Attorney Miriam Montesinos argued that the project has faced considerable review "forwards and backwards" since it was first proposed by Regency Centers of Florida in 2007.

"This has been beaten to death," said Montesinos in response to Jolley's comments that the EIR was lacking in looking at urban decay. "Economists have looked at this issue, staff has looked at this issue, they've gone above and beyond to analyze it and the bottom line position is not that stores will close...he's mincing words ... it says they might close but still no urban decay."

The economic impact analysis on the project states that the project could bury at least one existing grocery store.

At build-out, the shopping center would bring 10 other retail shops totaling 114,162 square feet consisting of three other major tenants and four smaller shops as well as a stand-alone retail building and two to three restaurants.

Mayor Chris Vierra said he expects an almost certain appeal.

"I'd be shocked if it didn't get appealed," said Mayor Vierra. "I anticipate that someone will appeal it and that it will come to us."

He expected that the council would need at least four to six weeks to wade through the mounds of analysis.

"I can assure you one thing... we, as a body, are to make a decision on the project. People can talk about the pros and the cons of Walmart but at the end of the day we don't govern by how employees are treated or how they give to the community but on the merits of the project."