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Judge hears arguments against Ceres Supercenter approval
Walmart legal fight harkens back to Turlock 'big box' ban

A Stanislaus Superior Court judge heard arguments Friday in the matter of the challenge against the 2011 approval of the Ceres Walmart Supercenter project.

The 26-acre Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center – with its anchor tenant of the Walmart Supercenter – was approved by the Ceres City Council in 2011 but the building site at the northwest corner of Mitchell and Service roads remains vacant. “Citizens for Ceres” is suing Walmart and the city of Ceres on their assertion that the city did not adequately follow environmental review law before the council approved the shopping center. Group spokesman Sherri Jacobson claims that the project EIR – crafted over a two year period – is “legally defective” which “should not have been certified by the city of Ceres.” Her group, however, fought the project from the moment Walmart was named as the anchor tenant and criticized the project on a full gamut of issues.

Brett Jolley, the attorney fighting the project, was in a Modesto courtroom as were representatives of the law firm of Meyers Nave which is defending the city in what has become one of the most protracted lawsuits against Walmart in California. Jolley argued in court that the shopping center would have negative adverse impacts on air quality and impact on the county landfill and asserts that urban decay and blight will likely occur at the existing Walmart store site when it closes for the Supercenter opening. City Manager Toby Wells was at the hearing and said he was surprised the group did not make an issue of traffic impacts. He said the claims that the county Fink Road landfill – which has enough capacity for the next 100 years – cannot handle the shopping center’s waste is “grasping at straws.”

Judge Roger Beauchesne heard both sides in court and has 90 days to render his decision, said City Attorney Mike Lyions. “The feeling is we don’t think he will be taking that long to do it.”

“The judge did not rule but he took the matter under submission so there will be a written decision at the superior court level regarding their challenge to the environmental documents,” said Lyions.

The City of Ceres' battle to get the big box store in town is the complete opposite of the City of Turlock's 2004 legal fight to keep Walmart out — a fight Turlock won.

In 2004, the then Turlock City Council passed a “big box” ordinance that prohibited any retail stores of more than 100,000 square feet from allocating more than 5 percent of the floor space to non-taxable merchandise, such as groceries. While not outright targeting Walmart, the ordinance put a halt to the retailer’s plans of constructing a Super Center on Countryside Drive, between Fulkerth Road and Monte Vista Avenue.

In the wake of that ordinance, Walmart filed a lawsuit against the city claiming they had been wrongfully barred from building their project. Over the next two years the two sides waged battle via court proceedings and appeals. Eventually in 2006, the retail giant gave up the fight, opting not to appeal a judgment from a federal court.

Turlock’s legal victory set up a new precedent that other communities used to keep out big box stores. It was also celebrated by family-run grocers who had voiced worries that the Super Center would price out “Mom and Pop” operations. However, in the wake of the economic downturn, what was once seen as a victory by some, is now looking like a missed opportunity to others.