BY JEFF BENZIGER

Image contributed
Building plans for the Ceres Walmart Supercenter were submitted March 29 for plan checks. It took 11 years for the application to take place following years of legal opposition.

Building plans and an application for a building permit for the Walmart Supercenter were received by city officials March 29 — nearly 11 years after the project was originally proposed.

Tom Westbrook, the city of Ceres’ Community Development Director, was elated at the news but lamented the lost opportunities for businesses that were primed to come with the Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center project when proposed in 2007.

“I’m glad the project’s here and I know there’s great stuff on the horizon for the city at that intersection for a number of different property owners in providing goods and services for our community,” said Westbrook. “I just wished it would have happened sooner.

“Obviously I’m a little bit disappointed in the fact because it didn’t get built right of way there was another commercial activity that would have happened shortly thereafter and Service and Mitchell could look very different today had they constructed in 2012 or 2013.”

That delay was the result of legal challenges lodged against the Walmart-owned project by a group calling themselves “Citizens for Ceres.” The Ceres City Council approved the center in 2011 but the opposition group, led by Sherri Jacobson and attorney Bret Jolley, dragged a slow fight through the environmental process and the Stanislaus County Superior Court.

The plans go next to the Stanislaus County Building Department which the city uses to provide building permit and plan check services. The process could take one to two months with the Walmart Corporation having up to two years to begin construction. Westbrook, however, believes grading could begin by summer or fall.

“The anticipation is once they get the building permit that it will probably be anywhere from nine to 12 months’ worth of construction,” said Westbrook.

Only the Supercenter structure itself is currently proposed. It consists of 185,682 square feet. The city expects the remainder of the center to develop as companies express interest in leases.

Last month the city gladly accepted the on-site and off-site improvement plans for the center at the northwest corner of Service and Mitchell roads. Westbrook said the engineer of the project had to coordinate with the city’s future plans with the Service-Mitchell Interchange. One consideration was allowing enough room for a widened Service Road at the project to accommodate two left turn lanes from northbound Mitchell Road onto westbound Service Road.

City Engineer Daryl Jordan said the project will include transition lanes to turn in and out of the project along the eastern and southern sides. A new traffic signal light will be installed midblock on Mitchell Road between Don Pedro and Service roads, he said, allowing entry into the center.

Once the new store is completed and occupied, Walmart will be obligated to market a new use for the existing store building at Hatch and Mitchell roads.

“We’re hoping they’ll just come in with, hey, here’s the tenant and somebody that’s going to occupy that entire building,” said Westbrook.

Westbrook remembers that a Walmart project in Clovis was delayed 11 years by a legal protest similar to the one that came in Ceres and thinking “that’s a really long time.”

Owners of adjacent empty parcels have been anxiously awaiting the development of Mitchell Ranch since it would be a magnet for development of their properties.

“We know that the folks that own the Ceres Southern Gateway Center, which is just to the south (of Service Road), were waiting to see those graders out there moving dirt around,” said Westbrook.

The Gateway Center project was approved years ago with a restaurant and a Hampton Inn & Suites but did not develop. He feels Walmart’s development could spur on the Gateway Center. In 2008 Ralph Ogden & Associate received city approval to build a commercial center consisting of a 162-room, three-story Hampton Inn & Suites and a tentative parcel map to split 16 acres into nine parcels for six buildings totaling 25,955 square feet for a proposed restaurant, retail space and gas mart. The project went into the skids upon the heels of the recession. Westbrook said he’s not certain if the original Ogden project will become a reality.

Westbrook also said that the owners of 10 acres on the east side of Mitchell Road near Rhode Road have been watching for Walmart to become a reality.

“Now I’ll be able to tell them I have the building permits so that’s pretty exciting.”