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City, Supercenter prevail in suit
Citizens for Ceres struck down
This artist rendering is how the proposed Walmart Supercenter would look if ultimately built west of Mitchell Road and north of Service Road. The project was appropriately approved in 2011 a judge ruled last week. - photo by Contributed to the Courier

The Walmart Supercenter and Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center are one step closer to reality now that a Modesto judge ruled against the challenge against the project lodged by a group calling themselves "Citizens for Ceres."

In 2011 the Ceres City Council approved the shopping center with its Walmart Supercenter anchor tenant for 26 acres at the northwest corner of Mitchell and Service roads.

The Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center never developed because of the persistent group led by Sheri Jacobson and represented by Walmart foe attorney Brett Jolley. "Citizens" fought the project on the assertion that the Environmental Impact Report, which took 2 1/2 years to craft, did not adequately follow environmental review law. Jacobson claimed that the project EIR is "legally defective" which "should not have been certified by the city of Ceres."

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 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 was "grasping at straws."

Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Roger Beauchesne agreed, finding that there is "substantial evidence" that the city and Walmart followed CEQA law.

"The judge ruled in the city's favor in all counts," said Community Development Director Tom Westbrook. "So that's an important step for us. Unfortunately the process took a bit of time to get the Environmental Impact Report to a standard that it needs to comply with CEQA. The judge's ruling kind of confirmed that that time was well spent."

In his ruling, Beauchesne agreed with the EIR in its prediction that the center will generate an estimated $327,000 in additional sales tax annually for the city and 250 more jobs. "Citizens" has maintained that there would be no benefit in jobs and tax base because the Supercenter would result in the closure of other businesses.

City Attorney Michael Lyions said that "Citizens" could appeal Beauchesne's decision to the 5th District Court of Appeals. If they did so, it's not likely that the appellate court would hear the matter for at least another year, he said.

Jacobson said her group would have to meet with Jolley before they decide on an appeal.

"We are disappointed in the court's ruling," Jacobson told the Courier. "Citizens for Ceres still strongly believes the Supercenter will have negative impacts on our great community that will outweigh any positives. We are evaluating our options."

The group would have 60 days in which to appeal to a higher court. An appeal cannot be filed until the city and Walmart have a judge sign the Notice of Judgment. That could take weeks.

Mayor Chris Vierra was happy in hearing the news.

"I think it's long overdue," said Vierra, "and it would be nice if we could welcome that business to ... a new location so that it can prosper with other businesses around it and create the jobs and everything else."

First proposed in 2007 by a different group, the shopping center would consist a 185,668-square-foot Supercenter and 10 other retail shops totaling 114,162 square feet. Specifically, the project includes three other major tenants, four smaller shops, a stand-alone retail building and two to three new eating establishments. No tenants besides Walmart have been named but Applebee's has expressed interest.

Before the trial court could hear the matter, both sides had to sort out which documents should be included into the "administrative record," the set of documents on which a judge will decide if the city adequately addressed environmental concerns. The city and Walmart asserted that many emails should be left out as attorney-client or attorney work-product privilege but in 2013 the California Court of Appeal's Fifth Appellate District in Fresno determined that emails were not necessarily protected.

In May 2011, attorney Elizabeth Anderson of Sheppard Mullin, a firm hired by Walmart, said CEQA does not require perfection, stating "it does not require all experts to agree - if it did you would never be able to certify an EIR."

Jolley has filed similar suits in other locations in California, including Bakersfield, Clovis, Chico, Elk Grove, Crescent City and Milpitas, in an attempt to prevent the building of Supercenters.