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Big box still on the table

City Council decides to keep options open on reversing ban

POSTED January 14, 2011 9:37 p.m.

The big box discussion isn’t over in Turlock quite yet.

The Turlock City Council on Tuesday voted 4-1 to accept staff’s recommendation and research possible locations to allow discount superstores – like Walmart Supercenters and Super Target – in Turlock through the city’s ongoing General Plan Update process. Councilman Forrest White cast the lone dissenting vote.

“That’s moving it forward and not closing the door,” said Mayor John Lazar. “I know a number of people are nervous about opening the door, but frankly more information might help us reaffirm our decision.”

Turlock is in the midst of updating the city’s General Plan, a document which will guide all growth in Turlock through 2020. Tuesday’s decision directs planners at Dyett and Bhatia, the firm drafting the General Plan Update, to identify possible locations for a new “Regional Commercial” zoning district, which would allow discount superstores.

Discount superstores, defined as stores greater than 100,000 square feet which designate more than 5 percent of their floor space to non-taxable goods like groceries, have been banned in Turlock since 2003. At that time, the then-Turlock City Council argued the stores would have a detrimental impact on existing stores, traffic patterns and pollution levels.

The City of Turlock was forced to defend that decision in court when Walmart launched a legal challenge of the ordinance. Turlock spent two years and nearly $400,000 defending the ordinance, but the legality of the ban was upheld.

The City Council still has final say over whether the Regional Commercial District makes it into the approved General Plan. Dyett and Bhatia’s suggestions should come back before council in about a year.

The process also gives the Turlock Planning Commission a say, asking the commission to recommend locations to designate as Regional Commercial.

The Planning Commission already weighed in on the plan at their Dec. 2, 2010, meeting, when by a 5-2 vote, the commission recommend the City Council stop any kind of further research on allowing big box stores in Turlock.  But, according to Planning Commissioner Nick Hackler, who addressed the council prior to Tuesday’s vote, that vote was skewed by the commission’s belief that a big box retailer could apply for an exemption  from the ordinance through a Planned Development.

“We thought that there was an opportunity for a store to come in, and it really became a basis of our discussion,” Hackler said.

At the Jan. 6 Planning Commission meeting the commission was scheduled to review a Planned Development to expand Target’s grocery section above 5 percent of its square footage, which would have triggered Turlock’s big box ordinance. Target dropped the proposal prior to the meeting due to legal concerns; according to City Attorney Phaedra Norton, because of the current General Plan and ordinance, a discount superstore cannot legally be approved in the City of Turlock.

For Turlock to have any possibility of building a discount superstore, a General Plan revision would be required.

“That’s the only option we have for the next 20 to 22 years,” Hackler said. “This is not a Target or a Walmart issue. This is my generation being able to access something that could be great for the City of Turlock.”

Lazar said he would support further research on the topic – which will not require city funding beyond what is already allocated to the General Plan Update – but would only support siting such stores in the southeast end of Turlock. The General Plan is expected to call for Turlock to grow in that direction, including a new interchange with Highway 99.

“To close the door on potential regional centers down there, particularly when Northern Merced County would love to have that center and those dollars, would concern me,” Lazar said.

Councilwoman Mary Jackson also said she would only support big box stores in the south, but was still apprehensive about the issue.

White was the only council member negative about bringing big box stores to Turlock. White said that, based on what he’s heard, the Atwater Super Target isn’t meeting sales expectations, even as a Walmart Supercenter is being built next door.

“If one isn’t doing even close to its projections, what’s a second one going to do?” White asked. “You just keep splitting the baby too many times. I’m not sold that it’s the panacea to the future. There’s other options.”

White floated the idea of an outlet mall in south Turlock, an idea backed by Jackson. He said that he fears the big box grocery and retail store may be a fad past its time.

“We’re always at the tail end of the ‘new idea’ in the Valley,” White said. “If we don’t go big box, we might be at the front end of the next new idea.”

To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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