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Merits of project reflected in 3-1 commission vote
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Last week's 3-1 approval of the Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center restored my faith in the Ceres Planning Commission.

Well, faith in three members anyway.

Comments and questions uttered on Feb. 22 made it appear as though the Walmart Supercenter was headed to defeat. Last week the commission stuck to the land use matters before them and filtered out the vitriol from the anti-Walmart people, many who were employing all the trademarks of propaganda. (For example, after Walmart explained that they have no physical room to expand the Ceres store, one man insisted that they need to expand their current store.) They also saw through rhetoric found in a recent letter to the editor which asserted that Walmart could simply expand and not "waste 26 more acres of land to make more room for aisles of Chinese-made goods." Commissioners, of course, knew that the issue isn't about where Walmart goods come from but about whether the center is appropriate for the Mitchell/Service site. And, of course, commissioners know that the center is more than a Walmart. Of the shopping center's 185,668 square feet, the Supercenter is 62 percent of the entire center's floor space.) The center is about 299,830 square feet of new retail, jobs-producing space, including three other major tenants and new smaller stores and restaurants.

Remove the pro- or anti-Walmart hysteria from the project - and the obfuscation of a high-priced hired gun in Brett Jolley of the Herum/Crabtree law firm - and stick to the facts and there's no question that the shopping center is a totally appropriate use for the corner of Service and Mitchell roads. I'm certain that if one hadn't known the name of the anchor store - with the possibilities for a Kohl's or J.C. Penney or Target - nobody would have put up a fuss. Certainly, Jolley - he's built his legal reputation on fighting Walmarts - wouldn't have been in town. In my opinion, anti-Walmarter Sherri Jacobsen wouldn't have been as impassioned either.

The Ceres General Plan designates the corner of Mitchell and Service road as RC or Regional Commercial. It's also zoned RC. Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center is a permitted and appropriate use for this zoning.

Likewise, the property falls within a special overlay district, the Mitchell Road Corridor Specific Plan, which dictates architectural styles. The design of the center meets or exceeds the standards for the MRCSP, in fact, drew praise from Commissioner Gary Del Nero as something he wants to see entering Ceres from the south on Mitchell Road. I agree. How many of us have entered Turlock from 99 going east on Monte Vista and admired the entry corner for Monte Vista Crossings and felt, "Why can't Ceres have something that nice?" Well, now Ceres will.

Not surprisingly, Kline, who makes a living delivering foods to certain grocery stores, stumbled through his explanation why he wouldn't support the center on virtually every point. (No surprise since he votes "no" on a lot of new projects." Kline didn't once acknowledge that the center is an appropriate use for the zoning. Instead, he stated with absolute assurity - which one cannot do - that jobs and hours WILL be cut at other grocery stores in town. Even if it's the case that one store ends up on shaky ground once the Supercenter opens, I've never heard that argument used when a city considers, let's say, another fast-food restaurant. ("Hey, we can't approve this Burger King on Hatch Road because it might cause the McDonald's across the street from selling less burgers and forced to cut employees' hours.") It's inappropriate of government to limit competition.

Nobody questions that the project will result in increased traffic above "significant" impact levels. But traffic happens when farmland is paved over for urban development. Despite a menu of road improvements that must be made to mitigate traffic impacts to Mitchell, Service and Don Pedro roads - including a Mitchell Road median and new signalized intersections - Mr. Kline dismissively rejected them all, saying "I don't see where those can mitigate the impacts." He then went on a bizarre tact of comparing remedies of turn pockets for the CVS Pharmacy (a small project on two-lane Central Avenue north of Hatch) with lane remedies for the five-lane Mitchell Road. I'm sure I wasn't the only one thrown for a loop in his apples-to-oranges comparison. Curiously, however, the EIR states that while the project is expected to generate 13,500 "new" weekday vehicle trips daily and 7,650 "new" weekend vehicle trips per weekend day, these trips "are not necessarily new but more likely re-routed trips which are currently traveling to other sources." The EIR noted that the project "may result in a decrease in gasoline consumption from vehicle emissions due to the availability of retail and grocery shopping at one location." In other words, there may be less running back and forth to Modesto or Turlock or multiple stops in Ceres on a shopping excursion.

Kline was also curiously dismissive about the project's affect on tax revenues. 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. But in Kline's words, you can't count on that because it hasn't yet been built. Such thinking falls short of vision. He also misspoke in stating that the project could result in "chance for tax revenue leakage." He probably chose the wrong phrase since tax leakage typically means loss of sales to other communities. Indeed, a Supercenter would attract more out-of-town shoppers from such places as Hughson, Keyes, Denair, Waterford, Hickman, Crows Landing and La Grange. No, Kline probably meant that taxes may dip in the short term if the new center precipitates the closure of an existing grocery store. That, at worst, is a very short-term issue. Virtually no one believes sales taxes to the city will dip in the long run.

My respect grew for Commissioner Luis Molina, who on Feb. 22 was ready to can the project but transcended the controversy and determined that his "duty as a planning commissioner" was to explore all the issues and that the project did indeed satisfy all the city's requirements. Even Bob Kachel did a superb job keeping the commission on task of the merits of the project as a land use issue rather than the politics of the whole matter. And thanks, Mr. Del Nero for adding your comment that the appearance of a Walmart Supercenter would not stop you from spending your money at other stores. It really is a matter of choice and competition.

Don't expect the foes, armed with union money, to disappear. Follow the money. There will likely be an appeal this week, probably from Jolley since his money comes from union shops that do not want to see Walmart or Winco to expand. They want to slay competition. The speculation is that Jolley is hired by union grocery interests but then forms a front group like "Citizens for Ceres," like he did the "Friends of Madeira" (near Elk Grove) or "Citizens for Chico," to pretend as a groundswell of locally concerned citizens. In Ceres' case, Jolley often uses the name of Jacobsen as a member although names of other members has not been disclosed. Expect Jolley to challenge an affirmative council decision using the same bag of tricks he used up north in Chico, the "urban decay will result" argument. Truthfully, the Ceres project has been subjected to years of study of environmental and economic impacts and the bottom line is maybe one store suffers as a result.

I am not a huge Walmart fan but they played by the rules, they planned, they spent and now hopefully they will get to build. How American is that?

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