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Walmart, shopping center still delayed in court
Citizens reply due by Oct. 28
City officials have been waiting nine years to realize the Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center but it looks like a final court ruling will take place in 2016. - photo by Contributed to the Courier

City Council candidates have frequently mentioned the pending 26-acre Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center and its anchor tenant of the Walmart Supercenter when talking about economic development.

However, the project, which was first proposed almost nine years ago, is still bogged down in court, where it was placed by a group calling themselves the "Citizens for Ceres."

A Stanislaus County Superior Court judge ruled 11 months ago that the Walmart Supercenter project has met stringent environmental reviews but the opposition group filed their notice of appeal in January to the Fifth District Court of Appeals. At the time, city officials believed their action added another year to the wait and see game. It will be longer.

City Attorney Thomas Hallinan said yesterday that the group has until Oct. 28 to reply to the city's response. "That being the case, I don't see the case being argued before the beginning of next year with a decision mid- to late-spring at the earliest," said Hallinan.

If the city and Walmart prevail - and there is no reason to believe they wouldn't - opponents could appeal a final decision to the Supreme Court. Hallinan said "the timeline to do so is short and they only accept a very small percentage to hear."

Angering many fans of Walmart, "Citizens" has continued to fight 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 maintains that the project EIR is "legally defective" which "should not have been certified by the city of Ceres." Last November Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Roger Beauchesne ruled that there is "substantial evidence" that the city and Walmart followed CEQA law.

The Ceres City Council, in 2011, approved the shopping center for the northwest corner of Mitchell and Service roads. The shopping center hasn't been developed because of the group spearheaded by Sheri Jacobson and represented by Walmart foe attorney Brett Jolley.

Last year, Jolley unsuccessfully argued 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. 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.

First proposed in 2007 by a different group, Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center would consist of 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.

Jolley has a reputation of fighting against Walmart projects in other communities, including Bakersfield, Clovis, Chico, Elk Grove, Crescent City and Milpitas. "Citizens" leaders have not disclosed how they are paying for the expensive costs of waging their fight in court but some Walmart supporters and city officials claim local grocer interests are funding the fight.