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Walmart appeal trial date set
Superior Court to hear Citizens for Ceres challenge July 11
An artist rendering of the Walmart Supercenter that was approved by the city in 2011 but not built because of a legal challenge. A local judge will hear the case on July 11. - photo by Contributed to the Courier

A Stanislaus Superior Court judge will take up the court challenge against the Walmart Supercenter project on July 11, City Attorney Mike Lyions announced on Monday.

In 2011 the Ceres Planning Commission and Ceres City Council approved the construction of the Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center and its anchor tenant of the Walmart Supercenter. However, a group calling themselves the Citizens for Ceres filed an immediate appeal of the decision. The path to a court hearing on the merits of the case has been fraught with disagreement over the facts that will be admitted into the record.

"I think the judge intends to issue a tentative ruling," said Lyions. "Then they have the argument and he may change his mind or not and then either the tentative ruling will stand or be modified."

Lyions said "there will be an appeal regardless of how it goes." He explained that Citizens will undoubtedly file an appeal if they lose the case and that the city and Walmart would appeal should the judge rule against the city.

"We're still probably a year to 14 months from the appellate court making a final determination, so it's still a long ways away," said Lyions.

The 26-acre shopping center was approved by the Ceres City Council in 2011 but the building site at the northwest corner of Mitchell and Service roads remains vacant.

The law firm of Meyers Nave is defending the city in what has become one of the most protracted lawsuits against Walmart in California.

"Citizens" 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 termed the project EIR as "legally defective" which "should not have been certified by the city of Ceres." The group, however, fought the center from the moment Walmart was named as the anchor and criticized the project on a full gamut of issues.

The center is proposed with an 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.

The draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) issued for the Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center took 2 1/2 years to craft.