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Walmart project appealed to council
Virtually everyone expected it to come - and it did.

In the final hour before Thursday's deadline, an appeal was filed of the Ceres Planning Commission's 3-1 approval of the Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center with anchor tenant the Walmart Supercenter. The action, filed by a group called themselves Citizens for Ceres, forces the four-member Ceres City Council to make the final call on the project.

On April 4 the commission approved the 26-acre shopping center for the northwest corner of Mitchell and Service roads. The building site is owned by the Walmart Corporation, which has been planning for the center since 2007. 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.

Walmart plans to close its existing store at Mitchell and Hatch and relocate it in a 185,668-square-foot store to the south.

"We are opposed to this development because it will destroy Ceres' neighborhoods, work against downtown revitalization plans, close local businesses and contribute to excessive traffic, air and light pollution," commented Sherri Jacobson, a longtime foe of the project and a member of a group calling themselves Citizens for Ceres. "In economic terms, there will be a net loss in tax revenues for the city. Sales revenue from this Supercenter will quickly travel out of state, rather than stay with local businesses and our local region."

An economic analysis of the project explains no initial increase in sales taxes to Ceres as Walmart captures an estimated 16 percent of grocery sales. But build-out of the center will increase taxes to the city of Ceres by $327,000 annually. The report also indicated that the shopping center would also draw customers from neighboring communities.

A press release issued by Jacobson notes her group is represented by Stockton attorney Brett Jolley, who's fought Walmart expansion in other communities.

Senior Planner Tom Westbrook took exception with a statement included in Jacobson's press release that the "community will have to bear increased infrastructure costs for improved road widening and more traffic lights." Not true, said Westbrook, who clarified that Walmart is paying for road improvements and traffic signals associated with the project.

Walmart officials expressed disappointment in the appeal but were expecting one.

"On behalf of our customers and over 10,000 Ceres area supporters, we are disappointed to hear that an appeal was filed," said Amelia Neufeld, Walmart's Senior Manager of Public Affairs & Government Relations. "We appreciate the support of the Planning Commission, and look forward to communicating the benefits of a new Ceres Walmart store and shopping center to the City Council, including creating more than 200 new jobs and generating additional tax revenues for vital city services."

At the Feb. 22 and April 4 planning meetings, Jacobson faulted all aspects of the proposal. At the latter meeting she stated that the center "cannot be considered in any fashion, to be an economic development project. It will not have a lasting economic benefit for the Ceres community nor will it reflect the small town values that make Ceres so special."

She condemned the design of the Ceres Supercenter as "cookie cutter" in nature, looking similar to stores in Atwater, Fresno, Elk Grove, Kerman and Folsom.

"If this is to be at or city gateway, why would we want our gateway looking like generic Walmarts?" asked Jacobson. "Let's demand more than the bare minimum."

Planning Commission Gary Del Nero complimented the design of the architectural design as a gateway vista. Chairman Bob Kachel said that while he wanted to see more designs as options, liked the Atwater store's design and suggested the Ceres store include some sections of rock veneer.

Jacobson called Walmart "intellectually dishonest" when it states that it owns no vacant stores in California. She alleged that there are vacant Walmart buildings in Gilroy, Hanford and Bakersfield and Vallejo. And she condemned Walmart for refusing to sell or lease empty buildings to competitors.

Mayor Chris Vierra said the council will need to take four to six weeks of studying all the documents before making a decision. No date has been set for a public hearing. Vierra made it clear that the project would be evaluated on its merits, saying: "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."