A large stack of wooden pallets that started popping up years ago west of Highway 99 is not only unsightly but also a fire hazard and must go, the Ceres Planning Commission decided Monday.
The commission voted 4-0 to deny a request by Efrain Gonzalez of Gonzalez Pedestals of Turlock, for a conditional use permit to continue operations.
Gonzalez failed to get city approval to start storing pallets on part of the Ceres Flea Market property in the industrial area just northeast of the Hil-Mor Drive and Fairview Drive intersection. .
The Ceres Flea Market has operated at 1651 E. Whitmore Avenue for decades, and the last time flea market management updated its conditional use license was in May 2013 when it sought to expand opening days and hours and to include additional activities with the reopening of the drive-in cinema. There was a change of ownership in 2018 and the new owner has maintained the flea market, but this use has seen a decline in sellers and customers over the past two years. To make ends meet, the owner decided to pave the area to create a truck and trailer parking terminal in mid-2019 at the north-west and north end of the site. Bus stations are automatically authorized in the general industrial zone M-2. The flea market remains with limited activity at the south end of the property.
Between August 2019 and May 2020, the owner started using the middle part of the site to store pallets without obtaining CUP first. After receiving a complaint and investigating this unauthorized use, Ceres Code Enforcement issued a notice of violation and the plaintiff contacted the city to discuss the legal operation of a pallet storage facility. The applicant was advised that a pallet storage yard requires a CUP, but would be difficult to obtain approval due to aesthetic issues and potential fire hazards that often accompany a collection of pallets. The city delayed code enforcement efforts to remove the pallets pending the commission’s decision.
The Modesto Fire Department, the city’s contract fire service provider, has inspected the site multiple times to ensure best practices are being followed to reduce fire risk. These practices were not followed and the stacks were not separated.
Before the commission voted against the application, fire officials proposed a number of conditions to reduce fire risk, including limiting stacks of pallets to a maximum height of 10 feet with a maximum of 20 pallets per pile ; and that the piles could not exceed 400 square feet in area.
Principal planner James Michaels felt that the use permit “can be supported because the applicant is willing to comply with these terms”.
Kevin Wise, a Modesto Fire chief, told commissioners that pallet storage poses a common fire threat.
Commissioner Bob Kachel said he was prepared to vote no because he disputed city staff’s assertion that the application was categorically exempt from CEQA review. CEQA stands for California Environmental Quality Act.
“There are at least two environmental issues here – aesthetics and fire protection,” Kachel said. “For me, this should be subject to a review by the CEQA. I find it difficult to move forward. »
Several citizens have spoken out against the storage of pallets.
John Warren said the business owner doesn’t just stock pallets, but repairs and resells them, and has “demonstrated his nonconforming attitudes regarding city conditions over the course of two years and several months after being noticed not following the application of the code and the requirements of the fire department.For these reasons alone, the permit should not be granted.
Renee Ledbetter, a local realtor and head of the Ceres Chamber of Commerce, spoke out on her own behalf against the project.
“This location is highly visible to drivers along Highway 99 – it’s not an image we as a city should want to portray, one of stacks of pallets and other trash that homeowners might want to store,” Ledbetter said. She called on Ceres to raise its standards when it comes to aesthetics “and not accept any kind of business that can’t find a location elsewhere.”
She noted that the wrecking yard west of 99 north of Service Road is slowly reducing inventory as the city begins work toward a new freeway interchange and that it would be a mistake “to replace one eyesore with another.” “.
Ledbetter cited a recent large pallet fire in Sacramento that tied down resources in 10 departments for hours. She said a fire next to 99 would cause serious traffic problems and possibly spread to homes across the freeway.
Jim Shade, an architect hired by the firm, argued that the piles would be stored appropriately, so “it certainly wouldn’t be the fire hazard it has been in the past”.
Before stepping down from office earlier this year, then-Councillor Linda Ryno complained that city staff were doing nothing about the eyesore.