Ceres, CA. Court Rules Against Citizens In Nine Year Wal-Mart Battle
Sprawl-Busters has been writing about a Wal-Mart battle in Ceres, California since 2007. A hearty group of local residents has held off the world’s largest retailer for nine years, with a see-saw battle in and out of court for years. This week, a court decision went against the Citizens for Ceres, but Wal-Mart is not a done deal yet.
On September 12, 2016, five years after the project was approved by the city of Ceres, the Fifth District Court of Appeal in Fresno ruled against the Citizens for Ceres and said that the Mitchell Ranch Center Wal-Mart Environmental Impact Report (EIR) was adequate. The Appellate Court also held Wal-Mart is not barred from collecting costs incurred by the City's law firm in preparing the administrative record.
If the Citizens do not seek review by the California Supreme Court, the case will be remanded for further proceedings in the Trial Court in Modesto, California, for Wal-Mart to argue that its claimed costs are reasonable.
The Fresno Court ultimately held that the EIR's treatment of air quality, urban decay, and solid waste impacts was supported by "substantial evidence" — giving great deference to the City's findings. The Judge did take issue with the EIR's treatment (or lack thereof) of human health impacts resulting from air pollution in his concurring opinion, but ultimately concluded this was not sufficient to overturn the project approval. Noting this topic is currently under review in the Supreme Court, the Justice wrote, "If Citizens seeks review of the air quality issues in the present case, our Supreme Court might grant review and defer briefing pending a decision in Sierra Club due to the possibility that the issues presented for review in this case will be affected by the conclusions and analysis adopted in deciding Sierra Club.”
The Citizens for Ceres expressed its appreciation for all the individuals who have helped the group.” Group leader Sherri Jacobson said: “Our members who include residents, voters, business and home owners — have remained patient and united for over nine years. We are still trying to understand how the law allows developers to substantially influence (and even write) Environmental Impact Reports, responses to residents' concerns regarding the environmental studies, and even City findings, when the public is lead to believe Cities address those issues independently. According to the record, Wal-Mart, through its lawyers, lobbyists, and consultants greatly influenced the environmental studies in this case and the City's decision to approve the project."
Jacobson continued, "Citizens for Ceres now has approximately 30 days to discuss this matter with all members, our public, and our attorney, and our group will soon decide if we are going to seek review in the Supreme Court. We look forward to moving forward as a group in Ceres, CA."
What you can do: In 2013, the same Appellate Court ruled in Citizens for Ceres’ favor and concluded Wal-Mart and the City had erred in withholding thousands of documents in the case. The City and Wal-Mart claimed they had "common interests" in approving the project and therefore their communications prior to the project approval were privileged. The Appellate Court strongly disagreed and concluded the city must remain neutral until the project is approved.
The issue of certifying the EIR first failed on a 2-1 vote, only to see Wal-Mart and the City Council reconvene several days later to re-vote, resulting in certifying the EIR and approving the project -- with no substantive changes to the EIR from the prior denial.
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