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Planning: No big box

Commission opts for retail restriction

POSTED December 3, 2010 11:59 p.m.

Any plans to bring a Target Supercenter or a Super Wal-Mart to the area likely were dealt a fatal and final blow as Turlock’s Planning Commission voted 5-2 to recommend the City Council maintain the status quo when it comes to the ban on discount superstores.

The consensus among the Planning Commission members seemed to be unanimous in that no one was in favor of seeing a discount superstore sprouting up in Turlock’s fields any time soon.

“I’m not in support of any of this,” said Commissioner Soraya Fregosi, in regards to the options presented for changing the city ordinance. “We have to represent the broader interest of the community.”

The point of contention was if the city should take advantage of an option tied to the general plan update that would access the feasibility and logistics of building a discount superstore in the future, like in 15 or 20 years.

“I’m getting the sense that we don’t want to let the genie out of the bottle,” said Commissioner Mike Brem, who was in favor of exploring some options. “But we are charged with planning and the question is whether we should look at these planning options, not whether we are for or against discount superstores.”

The city ordinance applies to discount superstores that devote more than 5 percent to grocery business. The ban was enacted in 2006 after the city emerged from a lawsuit with Wal-Mart $400,000 lighter, but victorious.

The issue seemed to be settled, but as the economy continued its downward spiral, Councilman Ted Howze said he was hearing from more and more constituents calling for a reprieve of what had become known as the “big box ban.”

Howze brought the issue to the City Council and after much discussion, it was decided to send the matter to the Planning Commission for further examination.

The Planning Commission held two public meetings on the issue — one on Thursday and one in October. The meeting in October was well-attended and the speakers were overwhelmingly against making any changes to the city ordinance. At Thursday’s meeting the crowd was sparse and the opinions on the ordinance were divided.

For Thursday’s meeting the Planning Commission was tasked with providing a recommendation to the City Council as to what option Turlock should pursue when it comes to discount superstores.

The commission had several options to consider. It could recommend changing the definition in the zoning law, essentially overriding the ordinance, or it could have moved to create a zoning overlay district, which would possibly allow for development of a superstore.

The commission also could have opted for an individual site re-zone that would have let a discount superstore selling groceries go into one particular location. This option could be coming up shortly because Target’s corporate plans include an expansion of its grocery business by adding fresh meat, produce, fruit and additional packaged food items into its stores.

Debbie Whitmore, the deputy director of development services for the city, said the Target store at 3000 Countryside Dr. has an application for re-zoning that will be up for consideration in the new year.

The commission also could have come up with its own option, but none were suggested.

Ultimately, the debate settled on two options — to keep the status quo, or include it in the general plan update.

In the general plan approach, those officials and experts already conducting the update would look at areas of towns that might be feasible as a discount superstore site. As part of the update the city could create a regional commercial designation that, depending on how it was defined, could or could not include discount superstores.

“You have potentially a new commercial zoning district that you could define that might include discount superstores,” Whitmore said. “What that would look like hasn’t been vetted yet.”

The general plan option would not cost the city any additional funding and could be used solely just to gather information.

Fregosi, who expressed concerns about the consequences of letting a discount superstore in, especially when it comes to employment, said any of the options other than re-enforcing the city ordinance would be “opening the door to changing the ban.”

Fregosi’s comment was an echo of those raised by Doug Fleming, a union representative for grocery and retail employees, who cautioned that opening the door to discount superstores would have disastrous effects on Turlock’s labor force and economy.

“I’m already going to have people lose their houses and if this goes through, it would be widespread,” Fleming said.

Commissioners Brem and Jeff Hillberg, who were the two dissenting votes, both thought the general plan update approach gave the city the most options both now and in the future.

“We’re paying for it, so we might as well get as much data out of it that we can,” Hillberg said.

“Personally, I’m against big box stores, but times change, so let’s look at the options,” Brem said.

A few community members in attendance also favored the general plan update approach.

“It’s about balance,” said Axel Gomez, a member of the city’s development advisory committee, which was pushing for the general plan update approach. “On the other side of the coin, people have less money to spend. Are they going to have to spend more for groceries because we won’t give them options?

“Are we going to become a regional center or are we always going to remain a bedroom community of Modesto? We need to send a signal that we are willing to listen,” Gomez said.

The City Council will consider the Planning Commission’s recommendation around the start of the new year, at which point they could accept the recommendation and move in that direction, or make their own separate decision.

To contact Sabra Stafford, e-mail sstafford@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2002.

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