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Will Supercenter fight go on?
Citizens for Ceres has less than month to decide to carry on fight or drop things
The Ceres Walmart site at the northwest corner of Mitchell and Service has awaited development now for nine years. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

Sherri Jacobson, leader of the group that has opposed the Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center and its anchor tenant of the Walmart Supercenter, said her group will soon decide if it will try to take its case to the California State Supreme Court.

"Our members have less than 30 days to discuss this matter with our public, and our attorney," said Jacobson on Sunday.

The Fifth District Court of Appeals in Fresno ruled on Monday, Sept. 12 against an appeal of the project lodged by "Citizens for Ceres" after the Stanislaus County Superior Court rejected their 2014 legal challenge of the shopping center.

In an email to the Courier, Jacobson said her group "is 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, Walmart, through its lawyers, lobbyists, and consultants, greatly influenced the environmental studies in this case and the city of Ceres' decision to approve the project."

Ceres City Manager Toby Wells answered her charge, saying, "The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process is primarily designed to identify and disclose to decision makers and the public the significant environmental impacts of a proposed project prior to its consideration and approval. The city of Ceres is satisfied that after many years of legal scrutiny, the Superior Court, and now the Appellate Court, has found the City's CEQA documents fully identify, disclose, and mitigate the environmental issues related to the Mitchell Ranch project and look forward to the successful development of the project."

Taking the matter to the Supreme Court is a longshot for "Citizens." The state's highest court typically does not accept many cases, said City Attorney Tom Hallinan.

The "Citizens" group began fighting the 26-acre shopping center project years before it reached the Ceres Planning Commission and City Council hearing stage. After years of extensive environmental review both city panels approved the project but the opposition group challenged the decisions. In 2014 "Citizens" contested the city's approval, 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 - who has fought Walmart project in numerous California cities - 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.

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," the court decision read.

City of Ceres Community Development Director Tom Westbrook suggested that because of the protracted legal battle, he's doubtful if Walmart has designed the center. If that's the case it could take a month or two for architectural designs with permits issued within six months. Construction could take nine to 12 months with the store and parts of the center opening in the early part of 2018.

Jacobson has fought the project since its inception, beginning with cries that the development of a vacant lot would rob wildlife of its habitat and protesting removal of a dilapidated building on the site. She and members of her group have lodged protests over planned store hours, architectural renderings, impacts on traffic, crime and air quality, plans to re-tenanting of the old store and claims that the new center would cause economic blight citywide. City officials say the group has tried to throw every objection imaginable in an attempt to stop Walmart and believe that the "Citizens" group is a front for Jolley and the law firm of Herum Crabtree & Brown. They note that Jolley has operated behind boilerplate groups similar to the one in Ceres, such as the Crescent Heritage Coalition, Lodi First, the Friends of Madeira, American Canyon Community United for Responsible Growth, Citizens Against Poor Planning for the purpose of fighting Walmart projects. Jolley has fought the corporation's projects in Merced, Sonora, Clovis, Milpitas, Chico, American Canyon, Lodi, Selma, Anderson, Apple Valley, Menifee, Antioch, and Citrus Heights.

It's been nine years since Mitchell Ranch was first proposed with a 185,668-square-foot Supercenter and 10 other retail shops totaling 114,162 square feet. If built, the project will include three other major tenants, four smaller retail shops, a stand-alone retail building and two to three new eating establishments. In the past, Applebee's has expressed interest in locating in the center.

"Their delaying of this has singlehandedly hurt the city more ways than they probably even know," said Ceres Mayor Chris Vierra.