The tough economy and questioning of how business is done here in Turlock has driven the City Staff to request that Council provide direction to staff on whether or not to investigate one or more alternative regulatory approaches that would allow “Discount Superstores” in the City of Turlock.
The City of Turlock spent around $400,000 fighting Wal-Mart in court to uphold a 2004 Big Box ordinance, banning discount superstores within the City of Turlock.
Planning Commission votes to not revisit Big Box Ordinance, not even study future change of law
On December 2, 2010, the Turlock Planning Commission denied suggesting to the Turlock City Council to revisit the 2004 Big Box ordinance, banning Discount Superstores that exceed 100,000 square feet of floor area and devote at least 5 percent of the sales floor area to nontaxable merchandise, commonly referred to groceries.
Furthermore, the Turlock Planning Commission denied supporting Commissioner Jeff Hillberg and Chair Mike Brem’s motion to at least study the impacts of a discount superstore at no extra cost while going through the General Plan Update with a 5-2 vote.
The rest of the Planning Commission felt that it would open the door for future discount superstore appeals to the Big Box ordinance.
Target withdraws application to expand grocery area
The Turlock Planning Commission was set to hear an application by the Target Corporation at their January 6, 2011 meeting to allow for an exception to the Big Box ordinance as the Turlock store wanted to expand its grocery section past the allotted amount by City law but the application was withdrawn.
Before the Turlock Planning Commission could hear the request, Turlock Planning Staff had prepared a report including their recommendation for denial and just hours before the Planning Meeting, the Target Corporation reconsidered.
“David Henry, representative for the Target Corporation, transmitted an email to staff this afternoon withdrawing this application from consideration by the City of Turlock,” said Turlock Planning Manager Debbie Whitmore.
Council approves to study allowing discount superstores in the future
At the January 11, 2011 Turlock City Council Meeting, City Staff requested that Council provide direction to staff on whether or not to investigate one or more alternative regulatory approaches that would allow “Discount Superstores” in the City of Turlock.
One of the alternatives the Turlock Planning Commission was told they had previously was removed due to potential legal ramifications, the same ones Target foresaw. This was that the Planning Commission and Council could make discretionary decisions of exemption by a Planned Development site rezone on a case by case basis but has now been found as problematic legally.
Councilwoman Mary Jackson referenced information she gathered from a Target employee that the corporation’s application to expand its grocery sales area was pulled because of expected legal issues and stated that Turlock couldn’t even consider approving Target’s application because of a potential lawsuit.
“If we do the regional center approach we can at least look at this,” said Councilwoman Jackson.
Referencing all other options, including rezoning and discretionary planned developments, Turlock Planning Manager Debbie Whitmore said, “It is a very risky venture, it’s more of a financial risk, not as much a policy risk, to take the approach under the General Plan they way its policy is established currently.”
“The city went through a process that was very long, an elaborate process of defending its position with regards to this ordinance, with regard to the definition that it established, and it really would be incumbent on the City to change its policy in a more comprehensive manner in order to be able to embrace these types of uses,” said Whitmore. “And that’s the reason staff is recommending that we look at this in our General Plan, which is really that policy document that says how do we want the City of Turlock to look in the future and it gives us that opportunity to look if this is the type of use that fits into the future or does it not fit.”
Councilman Bill DeHart questioned what exactly is the risk of working to allow a discount superstore under the current General Plan’s direction and if the policy is not studied during the General Plan Update but yet looking to allow one of these stores in the future.
“Significant… to quantify it, in terms of a planned development,” said Turlock City Attorney Phaedra Norton.
City Attorney Norton went on to explain the reasoning of looking for the most defensible process.
“From a staff’s perspective, from a legal perspective, the recommendation in terms of going through the General Plan process, that is the most defensible because you are taking a holistic view of a 20 year snap shot and what are our policy objectives from a land use perspective.”
“I’m very conflicted about the entire discussion,” said Councilman Dehart. “Whether or not either of these larger concerns would be compelled to file suit against us because we decided one way or another is really not the issue, but what do we want for our town, what do we want for our future.”
General Plan Update could include a review of a potential Regional Commercial land use designation and an environmental impact report at no extra cost as it is included in the General Plan Update process and budget.
“Staff is therefore recommending the General Plan Update approach, this is what we recommended to Planning Commission,” stated Whitmore. “They did not concur with the staff recommendation, but again, this gives us the opportunity to look at the role of these types of uses that might play a part in the City’s future economy, as well as to look at a policy frame that would actually support its development if that’s what the City Council so chooses.”
The Regional Commercial land use designation has not been utilized in the current General Plan designations or in the Northwest Triangle Specific Plan.
The General Plan Update review of this potential zoning is estimated to take one to one and a half years. It would be well into 2012 before the zoning would be in use if the Council so chose to approve such a zoning after the study had been done.
Turlock Planning Commissioner Nick Hackler spoke, not for the Planning Commission but for himself, and said that he had the understanding at the time he denied to study the Regional Commercial land designation while updating the General Plan that the Planning Commission would still have the option to go through the process, make findings and allow a store such a store operating as Target was applying to do.
“We thought there was an opportunity for a store to come in,” said Hackler. “We like having the idea of having control, of not knowing what was coming in, but still having the opportunity, that there really could be something very fantastic over the next 20 years come in and that we would have the opportunity to hear that.”
“I ask that you really consider maybe looking at this in the General Plan because this is the only option in the next 20, to say 22 years, that something very well, not a Target or Wal-Mart issue but my generation being allowed to access something that may be great in the City of Turlock and I think that we may be left behind if we close the door completely.”
Fernando Beltran, a resident of Turlock, spoke in opposition of changing the ordinance to allow discount superstores.
“It seemed to me that the ordinance made sense then, and despite our fiscal situation in the city and in the state, still makes sense now.”
Beltran said that he grew up in southern California and lived in Modesto but chose to live in Turlock because of its small town feel with no discount superstores.
“I came to Turlock because it doesn’t have a mall, because it doesn’t have big superstores, and I would really like to stay here because of those reasons,” said Beltran. “If it becomes like Modesto, or San Jose, or some other place, there’s no point in me staying. I like the community as it is, I’d like to keep it as it is.”
David Fransen was born and raised in Turlock and has spoke on this issue before favoring the allowance of discount superstores while also not wanting to go back over the Big Box Ordinance which held up in a $400,000 legal battle with Wal-Mart. Fransen believes that discount superstores are regional shopping destinations supported by an increasing consumer trend and would like Regional Commercial zoning studied in the General Plan Update process since it is won’t cost any extra money to the City.
“It’s sort of conflicting because I was against the original ban because I believe in a competitive market place, and it’s interesting because we talk about being business friendly but yet we’re going to ban certain business,” explained Fransen. “I just think it’s fair, like Nick Hackler said, I think that you guys can’t seal the deal on our future, especially when it seems evident that most likely this is the way business is going."
“Every other city seems to be getting these kinds of stores and I do like Turlock being unique, at the same time every time one of those stores opens up near us they’re actually taking away revenue from us by retaining their own,” said Fransen. “If we do want to be regional shopping, which I think we are for the surrounding smaller cities, it’s only thinkable we’re going to have these kinds of stores for them too.”
After City Staff and public comment discussion concluded, Councilman Forrest White said that the Turlock Planning Commission’s recommendation to Council regarding the study of potential Regional Commercial with discount superstores sounded a little convoluted.
“I would prefer, personally, that they address that item specifically,” stated Councilman White.
Turlock Planning Manager Debbie Whitmore said, “They were presented the information and chose 5-2 not to.”
Vice Mayor Amy Bublak also spoke to the Turlock Planning Commission’s recommendation.
“I’m kind of disappointed. I thought it was sent to them to come up with some great ideas, there are a lot of brilliant people on planning commission, and somehow they denied everything,” stated Vice Mayor Bublak. “If we send it out to staff and General Plan, I think it’s wonderful. I don’t want to close any door with the potential of having our fait sealed in one second.”
Vice Mayor Bublak also suggested possibly sending out a survey in the utility bills.
“I think we should just ask people point blank, do you want one in your city,” said Bublak.
“I have been involved in past discussions and dispositions and controversy over this item being a member of that Council that acted on the Big Box Ordinance,” stated Mayor Lazar. “However, I’m conflicted in that looking at the discussion of where potential sites for future regional centers may in fact go, I’m a proponent of hoping that south east Turlock would be the site of future growth for this community.
“To close the door on potential regional centers down there, particularly when northern Merced County would love to have that regional center and tax dollars, is a concern for me,” said Mayor Lazar. “Having said that, that would be the only location I would want to see any type of regional center go.”
Mayor Lazar mentioned that state and regional politicians are working to get federal tax dollars in an effort to build a potential new interchange in south Turlock/north Merced County.
“At this point, if the only segue to that discussion is allowing the recommendation of staff, I would be supportive of it.”
Councilwoman Jackson agreed with Mayor Lazar in the fact that the south was her only desired location for a regional commercial center.
“One thing I would like to bring up, regional shopping does not mean big box stores,” said Councilman White. “What if we had an outlet mall in the south east of Turlock, there are other alternatives than big box stores that sell more than 5% of groceries.”
Councilman White explained how Wal-Mart is now making stores smaller to fit into niche markets and that maybe this is a trend.
“Even though we’re always at the tail end in the valley of quote the new idea, to be quite honest, if we don’t go big box we might be on the front end of the next new idea.”
Councilman White also added that he found out in Atwater that the new Target Superstore isn’t even close to meeting their projections and now Wal-Mart wants to build a supercenter right next door.
“You just keep splitting the baby too many times,” said White. “I’m not sold that it’s the panacea to the future, there’s other options.”
Mayor Lazar concluded the discussion stating that the decision Council is making is to just get more information to make a better decision in about a year.
“I know that many people are nervous about opening the door, but frankly, more information might help us be firmer in our decisions… if you are not wanting to open the door.”