Officials deny wrongdoing in Ceres Wal-Mart site work

CERES -- City officials said they did nothing wrong in allowing the demolition of abandoned structures and removal of vegetation on land undergoing an environmental review for a proposed Wal-Mart supercenter and other stores.

Staff members said they could have communicated better internally but that they did not break any environmental protection laws. City staff approved the demolition permit by Modesto Sand and Gravel.

The work has upset several residents who chalk it up to underhanded dealings by land developers and retail giant Wal-Mart. The Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center is planned for the northwest corner of Mitchell and Service roads.

Trees in the center of the plot were removed, and a handful of vacant farmhouses and outbuildings along Don Pedro Road were razed.

Consultants are about halfway through the Environmental Impact Report required by state law to study environmental impacts of development on land, including traffic, noise and air quality. Barry Siebe, Ceres planning manager, said many studies were completed before the site work was done.

The six-page response, written mainly by Siebe, answers questions posed by residents.

The 26 acres at Service and Mitchell are owned by Mitchell Service LLC, according to a public records search by The Bee. The records state that Mitchell Service LLC is linked to Regency Realty Group, the company developing the site. Calls to Regency inquiring about the timing of the site work were not returned.

Touching the land before the environmental impact report is completed raises questions about the legitimacy of the study, residents said. It also makes some think the Mitchell Ranch and Wal-Mart projects are done deals.

The land is considered private property, so the city doesn't have control over what is done to it, but Siebe said staff and the landowners would discuss any other changes to the plot.

"The city would have liked to review (demolition) plans beforehand," Siebe said.

Fires, homeless on property

Siebe noted that the Police and Fire Departments have responded to the site several times in more than three years to calls of fires and homeless people camping in the abandoned outbuildings. Safety and liability issues might have motivated demolition of the structures by the landowner, Siebe said.

If Wal-Mart was not part of the equation, Siebe said, the demolition wouldn't have been an issue with residents.

In July, Wal-Mart announced plans to build a 208,000-square-foot supercenter at the location. A regular, 124,000-square-foot Wal-Mart two miles to the north at 1670 Mitchell Road would be renovated and remain open, according to Wal-Mart officials. Supercenters are larger and sell more groceries, including meat, fruit and vegetables. The closest supercenter to Ceres is in Stockton.

Plans for the 314,000-square-foot Mitchell Ranch shopping center include other stores, a fast food vendor and chain restaurants.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.