The Wal-Mart Supercenter and accompanying 26-acre Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center was given a green light by the Ceres City Council Monday evening after months of public hearings.
Council members Ken Lane, Bret Durossette and Guillermo Ochoa voted unanimously to reject an appeal of a Planning Commission approval of the center. A group calling themselves Citizens for Ceres asked the council to overturn the commission’s approval of the shopping center for the northwest corner of Mitchell and Service roads.
The center will be anchored by the 185,668-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter. The center will serve as a southern gateway project to include 10 other retail shops totaling 114,162 square feet, including three other major tenants and four smaller shops, as well as a stand-alone retail building and two to three new restaurants.
The issue of bringing a Wal-Mart Supercenter to town was met with contentious debate in the public over the last few months and it was a debate familiar among Turlock’s residents. A Wal-Mart Supercenter was proposed for Turlock’s Monte Vista Crossings, but the idea quickly soured among residents and the city leaders.
In 2004 the Turlock City Council passed a “big box” ordinance that prohibited any retail stores of more than 100,000 square feet from allocating more than 5 percent of the floor space to non-taxable merchandise, such as groceries. While not outright targeting Wal-Mart, the ordinance put a halt to the retailer’s plans of constructing a Supercenter on Countryside Drive, between Fulkerth Road and Monte Vista Avenue. In the aftermath, Wal-Mart filed a lawsuit claiming the city had wrongfully barred them from building their project. The two sides squabbled against one another in legal wranglings and in courtrooms until the city finally emerged victorious two years later.
Earlier this year Target pulled plans from Turlock’s Planning Commission to expand their grocery department because it didn’t appear likely that the city would rescind the ordinance.
The Ceres City Council focused Monday on Wal-Mart’s proposed plan to re-tenant the existing 130,000-square-foot store at Hatch and Mitchell roads, which is slated to be vacated when the Supercenter opens. Lane would not support the reuse plan on Aug. 22, but agreed to join city staff to negotiate a new reuse plan with Wal-Mart. Lane said he was interested in having Wal-Mart or any future owner be held to a maintenance standard for the abandoned Wal-Mart store.
On Monday the council retreated from forcing Wal-Mart to make its store available to competitors. The original reuse agreement called for Wal-Mart to make its store available to competitors if it could not find a new tenant within 12 months. Lane said the restriction would have likely forced Wal-Mart to sell its building and possibly sit vacant.
The reuse plan approved Monday calls for Wal-Mart to: Actively market the abandoned store; provide a list of competitors it won’t allow in the building. The list is expected to include Target, Winco, and Costco; and maintain the closed store property, keeping landscaping maintained and removing any graffiti or blight conditions.
Sherri Jacobsen of the Citizens for Ceres group, made one last appeal for rejecting the project.
“Citizens for Ceres opposes this project and believes not only is it bad for the community, but the City Council has every right, and in fact, every obligation to deny this project based on its significant environmental impacts,” said Jacobson.
She said a $25,000 bond to ensure the city could enforce blight removal of the vacated store “does not mitigate the risk of that building sitting vacant for years.” She noted that the city of Lodi obtained a $750,000 bond to mitigate a closed Wal-Mart store there.
Jacobson suggested the council make the reuse plan part of the Environmental Impact Report and California Environmental Quality Act mitigation measures. However, Senior Planner Tom Westbrook said elements of the reuse plan came directly from the EIR.
Attorney Brett Jolley, representing Citizens, said the Wal-Mart reuse plan falls short. He said the issue goes beyond keeping the building free of graffiti but keeping the intersection a vibrant part of the Ceres economy.
Citing court cases, Jolley also challenged the council’s authority to take a vote on the project. He suggested the council’s “failed motion to approve the project” on Aug. 22 was an “effective denial of the project.” City Attorney Michael Lyions, however, opined that the council did not take action on Aug. 22 since it was unable to come up with three votes for or against the project. The council merely continued the public hearing, he said.
Archcliffe Drive resident Marsha Harris both asked the council to deny the project and continue fighting for “teeth” to enforce the reuse plan saying Wal-Mart was only “reciting promises.”
Durossette said he trusted Wal-Mart would do its best to fill the vacant building, saying the company has been “a good neighbor” since coming to Ceres in the early 1990s. He asked Ceres residents to continue supporting existing grocery stores.
“I know I won’t change my shopping habits,” said Durossette.
He said he wants to see a council study session to sit down with Wal-Mart on the best strategy to fill the old store.
The Wal-Mart Supercenter could break ground in Ceres within 18 months, said Lane. It’s unknown if Jolley will fight the project in court. If that happens, the project could be delayed for an unknown amount of time.
If the Wal-Mart Supercenter is built in Ceres, it will mean that Turlock would be bracketed by large-scale retailers to the north in Ceres and the south, with the Super Target in Atwater.
To contact Jeff Benziger, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 537-5032.
Reporter Sabra Stafford contributed to this story. To contact Sabra Stafford, e-mail email@example.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2002.