By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Stay in Supercenter suit
Placeholder Image
The Fifth District Court of Appeal in Fresno issued a "stay" last week regarding a pending lawsuit over the embattled proposed Walmart Supercenter store.

A group calling themselves "Citizens for Ceres" is suing the city of Ceres and Walmart over last year's Planning Commission and City Council approval of the Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center, which will be anchored by a Walmart Supercenter store. Walmart wants to build the shopping center at the northwest corner of Mitchell and Service roads and vacate the existing Walmart at Hatch and Mitchell. "Citizens" have filed suit in Stanislaus County Superior Court challenging the city's ability to approve the project, arguing that the scope of environmental review was lacking. Specifically, the lawsuit faults the project's Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for not adequately addressing any potential urban decay resulting for the new center. Proponents of the center long argued that the EIR has addressed those concerns and noted that the term "blight" is different than one used in redevelopment agencies.

The parties have been at odds since January about the content of what's called the "administrative record" on which the case will be heard in a Modesto courtroom. "Citizens" wants the approximately 700 documents - mostly emails - included in the record. Walmart and the city have refused on the grounds that the documents are either "not relevant" or protected from disclosure by "attorney-client," "attorney-work product," or "deliberative process" privileges.

In July the Superior Court ruled that the documents in question challenged are privileged and therefore the court could not force the city or Walmart to produce these documents or include them in the record.

Attorney Brett Jolley said he was pleased about the stay order and believes "this shows the appellate court wants to take some time to seriously consider the administrative record issue."

City Attorney Michael Lyions said the latest development is not a big deal and "only causes a slowdown in the case" since the Superior Court still has to hear the case, likley in November. Lyions said Jolley is only interested in delaying the legal proceedings over Walmart as long as he can.

"It's just an advisory to the lower court," said Lyions. "They could still deny the writ."

The petition filed by Jolley - an attorney with a reputation of fighting Walmart expansion in California - asks the appellate court to force the city to turn over internal communications and external communications between its staff and Walmart representatives and to include these in the record, which will be reviewed by the court to determine if the city abused its discretion in approving the project.

Sherri Jacobson, spokeswoman of Citizens for Ceres, rejects the notion that the city gave her group due process through the approval process. She also stated that city produced a "woefully under-inclusive record" by excluding thousands of documents.

In February, the city and Walmart filed a motion asking the Superior Court to move the matter to trial despite what Jacobson calls "an incomplete record." In turn, "Citizens" filed motions to compel the city to include their choice of documents in the record before the court could hear the case. The court instructed both sides to work together to attempt to resolve issues regarding the record contents.

The city, working with Walmart, ultimately produced several thousands of pages of documents but still asserted privileges over approximately 3,000 documents.

"Our group continually requests transparency from our city and Walmart, and we will not stand for more lip service and red tape," said Jacobson. "We believe both law and fairness require the city and Walmart to let us receive the disputed 700 documents for review to ensure the land use process is transparent."