Ceres, CA. Court Rules "Uninspiring . . . Average" Wal-Mart Superstore Can Proceed.
Seven years ago this month, Sprawl-Busters posted the first story about the city of Ceres, California, located in the central San Joaquin Valley, 80 miles south of Sacramento and 95 miles east of San Francisco. Ceres describes itself as "a growing community with a heartfelt commitment to retaining its small neighborhood personality." The city already had a Wal-Mart store, but in July of 2007, the retailer unveiled plans for a huge 208,000 s.f. superstore on the south side of town near Highway 99. Citizen opposition sprang to life immediately.
"Our existing Ceres store is at capacity," a Wal-Mart spokesman told the Modesto Bee at the time.. "This is a great opportunity to continue to serve our customers." The city hired an environmental consultant to review the plan, and the Mayor of Ceres told the media, "This is a very long process and we're only at the beginning." He had no idea opposition would stretch the process into a 7 year battle.
A group called Citizens for Ceres sent Sprawl-Busters this release: "The Wal-Mart Corporation wants to build a second store, a supercenter, in Ceres, California. The proposal is controversial for a number of reasons, and the two stores would be located about 2 miles apart, both on Mitchell Road. Wal-Mart is intent on developing a 26.4-acre plot of land containing 16-plus acres of prime farmland. Approximately 15 acres would allow for 1,281 cars on a single-level parking lot.
Some residents do not like the idea of a second store, especially a supercenter, in their small town because of the limited land available. Some feel the proposed supercenter will dwarf the town because it is out of scale for the town and the location.
The supercenter would serve as the anchor store to a new shopping center development, if approved. It would become the gateway to Ceres, as travelers enter the South end of town, adjacent to the 99 freeway. But as one woman said, 'If Wal-Mart is to symbolize the gateway to Ceres, where are we, the Twilight Zone?'"
"History reveals," the release continued, "that Wal-Mart opens new supercenters, then closes an older, existing store in the same town... .Besides poor aesthetics, residents fear their property values will decrease and their utility costs will go up. Some residents are concerned with the reduced quality of their lives, and the blight the project will create... The mostly low-paying, temporary jobs Wal-Mart wants to offer Ceres do not meet the values or needs of the locals.
Some taxpayers have tired of footing the bill for Wal-Mart employees who cannot survive without government-funded aid. The Ceres community is in need of alternative shopping and cultural opportunities, not a second Wal-Mart, which basically offers what Ceres already has. One resident summed it up, 'Is Wal-Mart's new slogan, 'Save Money. Live Better.' supposed to make us feel better while Wal-Mart has a monopoly in our town and we receive poverty wages?'"
Fast-forward seven years. On November 3rd, Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Roger Beauchesne ruled in against Citizens for Ceres. The court's ruling affirms the Ceres City Council vote from 2011 in favor of the superstore. The lawsuit from CFC sought to decertify the Environmental Impact Report, arguing that the City approved the Project without properly correlating the Project's air quality impacts to adverse impacts on public health as required by California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
Citizens also argued that there will be insufficient landfill availability because at the anticipated rate of 2.97 tons per day of on-site solid waste generation, the project will significantly reduce the life of the landfill. Citizens also contended that the City failed to adequately describe the Project's environmental setting regarding existing urban decay and physical blight, citing a landmark case from Bakersfield, California. CFC said they failed to describe existing and known physical blight and deterioration in Ceres. But the Court concluded that the Project would not result in any significant, unmitigated urban decay impacts.
In court, the City identified ten (10) overriding benefits of the Project:
1 -- It will generate sales tax revenue for the City
2 -- It will increase employment and create diverse employment opportunities for City residents
3 -- It will provide buffers and transitions between commercial uses and adjacent residential uses
4 -- It will provide an attractive gateway development to the City
5 -- It will feature numerous energy conserving measures
6 -- It will provide attractive landscaping
7 -- It will fulfill a general plan goal of creating a regional commercial center that provides quality goods and services
8 -- It will increase retail activity in the Project area
9 -- It (Wal-Mart) will be a good member of the community, 10 -- It will contribute to the physical identity of the area and result in improvements to a major corridor.
The Court sided with the City in each of these projected benefits. The Citizens said the proposed supermarket portion of the Project largely includes nontaxable grocery items that do not generate any sales tax is speculative. But the City's expert, Bay Area Economics, concluded that the Project would resulting in an increase of $327,000 in sales taxes for the City.
The CFC said that a San Diego study showed that Wal-Mart employment actually costs jobs. But the City said the report's sponsor, the San Diego Taxpayers Association, now disowns the report and refuses to endorse its use. The Court did admit that "the projections for job growth are not particularly overwhelming and/or expansive," but it still supported the City and Wal-Mart regarding the estimates for the growth in projected jobs.
The Judge also reviewed the "Welcome to Ceres" monument placed in the plan to "enhance the Gateway" to Ceres. "Having reviewed a photo of the proposed monument," the Judge wrote, "and considering the description of the 'gateway' area, the Court agrees with [Citizens for Ceres] that it is of average design, and the Court finds the description of the proposed gateway uninspiring."
Citizens warned that "at least one, if not more, grocery stores may close." They further contend the proposed Wal-Mart store. But the Court ruled that the retail project "will increase retail activity."
After the Court's ruling was issued, CFC spokesperson Sherri Jacobson said: "We are disappointed in the court's ruling. Citizens for Ceres still strongly believes the Supercenter will have negative impacts on our great community that will outweigh any positives. We are evaluating our options."
The Modesto Bee newspaper quoted the City's Attorney as saying, "We all feel pretty good about the judge's decision and believe that, if appealed, it would be supported by the appellate court. We are terribly anxious to have the development go forward so the community can reap the benefits of it."
Wal-Mart paid all the City's legal fees in this case. CFC had to raise its own money to pay for its three year legal battle.
Once the Judge signs the Notice of Judgment, CFC will have two months to file an appeal the Court's ruling.
What you can do: If CFC choses not to appeal, the residents of Ceres, who say they value a "small neighborhood personality" for their city, will get saddled with an "average... uninspired design" for a superstore, with job impacts that are not "particularly overwhelming and/or expansive." They will also watch the existing Wal-Mart store get emptied, and left as a huge, empty, blighted store.
Readers are urged to call Ceres Mayor Chris Vierra at (209) 538-5692 with the following message:
"Dear Mayor Vierra,
The city is turning Ceres from a small neighborhood personality, to a big box personality, with no real justification beyond the $327,000 a year in sales taxes---which you know is a gross figure, not a net figure. Will you be in office when the first grocery stores begin to fail? The net impact could be negative when you minus out the stores which close. You will have to recalculate your 85 Wal-Mart jobs, which will start to fall as soon as existing grocery stores close their doors.
This is not economic development---it's voodoo economics. After this 7 year battle, the city has learned nothing about the nature of retail economics. The internet is killing box stores, which is why Wal-Mart is pinning its growth hope on much smaller formats. There will be no benefits to reap from this store---it's just a larger share of the retail pie for Wal-Mart.
Mayor, your Wal-Mart dreams are a few years too late, and a few acres too big."