An appeal of the 2011 city approval of the Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center with its Walmart Supercenter anchor tenant was slapped down Monday by the Fifth District Court of Appeals in Fresno, bringing the project closer to construction.
City officials were beaming Monday evening when they received word that the justices rejected a four-point appeal filed by a group calling themselves "Citizen for Ceres."
City Manager Toby Wells shared the news with the Ceres City Council at the Monday evening meeting.
"This is the best news that I've had to announce in a long time," said Wells. "On the five-year anniversary to the day of the City Council's approval of the Mitchell Ranch project we received a decision this late afternoon that the city was victorious in that appellate court decision. We won on basically all accounts. That is really good news."
Wells tempered his remarks by saying the city doesn't know yet when Walmart, the developer of the project, can be issued building permits. "Citizens" has the right to appeal the new decision to the California State Supreme Court but such an avenue appears dim.
"Fortunately there is a shorter window on that time frame," said Wells. "Tenatively it looks like they have about 30 days to file that appeal and the California State Supreme Court has another 30 days to make that decision. Those time frames, don't hold me to it, are only estimates at this point. Likely we would have this complete resolution done in the next 60 days."
The state's highest court typically does not accept many cases, said City Attorney Tom Hallinan.
Wells said the city looks forward to getting together with Walmart "to start development."
City of Ceres Community Development Director Tom Westbrook suggested that because of the legal challenge that has been ongoing for years, he's doubtful if Walmart has had the project designed by an architect. If that's the case it could take a month or two, meaning permits could be issued within six months. Construction would take nine to 12 months.
"You could be into the early part of 2018 before the store is ready to open," said Westbrook.
Monday's slap down with the second for the Walmart opposition group. Citizens contested the city's approval of the 26-acre shopping center in 2014 in Stanislaus County Superior Court, saying the city inadequately followed environmental studies of impacts on the community. Judge Roger Beauchesne ruled that there is "substantial evidence" that the city and Walmart followed the law as outlined in the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Citizen attorney Brett Jolley unsuccessfully argued that the shopping center would have negative adverse impacts on air quality and impact on the county landfill and asserted that urban decay and blight will likely occur at the existing Walmart store site when it closes for the Supercenter opening. Walmart has said it is committed to filling the existing store building at Hatch and Mitchell with another use. In his ruling, Beauchesne agreed with the EIR in its fore-cast 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.
In the appellate court case, Citizens made four arguments that:
• The environmental impact report (EIR) certified by the city did not mandate adequate mitigation measures for the urban decay impact of the project;
• The EIR did not sufficiently analyze the project's impacts on landfill and recycling facilities and did not mandate adequate mitigation measures for those impacts;
• The EIR failed to contain adequate information correlating the project's air pollution impacts with resulting effects on human health;
• The city's statement of overriding considerations, a document that explains how the project's benefits will outweigh its significant and unavoidable environmental impacts, was not supported by substantial evidence.
"We reject each of these arguments," read the court decision.
Wells charged that the Citizens group has only been about delaying the project since it hired Jolley, a known hired gun against Walmart projects in California. It's been nine years since the project was first proposed to construct 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. After two-and-a-half years of studies to weigh impacts to local streets, water, air quality and economic impacts the City Council approved the application in 2011. Group leader Sheri Jacobson has maintained that the project EIR is "legally defective" and "should not have been certified by the city of Ceres."
An internet search shows that Jolley and the law firm of Herum Crabtree & Brown have crafted boilerplate groups such as the Crescent Heritage Coalition, Lodi First, the Friends of Madeira, American Canyon Community United for Responsible Growth, Citizens Against Poor Planning, in addition to the Citizens for Ceres for the purpose of fighting Walmart expansions in communities that include Sonora, Clovis, Milpitas, Chico, American Canyon, Lodi, Selma, Anderson, Apple Valley, Menifee, Antioch, and Citrus Heights.