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Suit takes on city over Supercenter
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City officials and Walmart company representatives expected it and it came.

Attorney Brett Jolley filed a lawsuit Wednesday, Oct. 12, challenging the Ceres City Council's approval of the Walmart Supercenter project, part of a larger proposed Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center project.

The Ceres City Council voted 3-0 on Sept. 12 to reject an appeal of the shopping center project on Sept. 12. The council upheld the Planning Commission's approval of the Walmart owned project. The council action also included a certification of the project's extensive Environmental Impact Report (EIR).

The lawsuit filed by Jolley - who has fought the expansion of Walmart into other California communities - asks the Stanislaus County Superior Court to invalidate the project approvals including the environmental impact report (EIR).

A group calling themselves Citizens for Ceres filed the appeal of the project, citing multiple and a myriad of issues. In a press release issued by the group, Sherri Jacobson said: "Citizens for Ceres has strong ethical and legal convictions that the deficiencies in the EIR are significant, and that the Environmental Impact Report for the Mitchell Ranch Center is legally defective and should not have been certified by the city of Ceres. Our only remedy is this litigation."

Jacobson said her group "will not allow Walmart to disrespect our community any longer by ignoring the significant deficiencies in the EIR and the negative impacts this specific project will bring to our community."

Chris DeSignori, a member of the group, said: "We do not oppose Walmart and we support the existing store continuing its operations. But we do object to Walmart's plans to relocate to the proposed new location at great cost to our community."

Walmart's Amelia Neufeld, Senior Manager of Public Affairs & Government Relations, expressed disappointment in the suit.

"On behalf of our customers and more than 10,000 Ceres-area supporters, we are disappointed to learn that this action was taken," said Neufeld. "This new Ceres Walmart store and shopping center project underwent years of countless studies and numerous public hearings where a full vetting of every issue was completed. In a time of double-digit unemployment, this project promises more than 200 new jobs, increased sales tax revenues and economic growth for the city of Ceres. It's unfortunate that some continue to seek unnecessary delays to deny this much-needed and wanted project for the community."

Specifically, the lawsuit faults the 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.

Jolley also insists that CEQA disqualified the council from taking action on the project insisting that two failed motions to approve the project on Aug. 22 was essentially a denial of the project. On Sept. 12 Jolley challenged the council's authority to place a vote on he Supercenter claiming that the council's "failed motion to approve the project" was an "effective denial of the project." City Attorney Michael Lyions, however, opined that the council did not take action on Aug. 22 since it was unable to come up with three votes for or against the project. The council merely continued the public hearing, he said, where it ultimately approved the project.

"A failure to pass a resolution with the three required votes in essence is a non action," said Lyions on Sept. 12. He noted that two motions to approve the project resulted in 2-1 votes and "that, in essence, was not an action to deny the project."

The project faced extensive environmental review for years, and was scrutinized at multiple public hearings. On May 23 Ceres city Senior Planner Tom Westbrook expressed more than once his complete confidence in the thoroughness of the EIR. He said the process took so long because the city was careful to cover all issues to comply with California Environmental Quality Act. In April, attorney Miriam Montesinos argued that the project has faced considerable review "forwards and backwards" since it was first proposed by Regency Centers of Florida in 2007.

At each hearing before the Planning Commission and City Council Jacobson raised issues with the project, including its location, size and design. Despite the hours of public testimony, Jacobson insists that "the record shows that many in the Ceres community had ongoing concerns regarding the Supercenter proposal and ... those concerns were ignored capriciously by Walmart and the city."

Approximately 100 persons signed a petition asking the Planning Commission to reject the project. Neufeld said Walmart obtained petitions of support signed by over 10,000.

The city has an agreement with Walmart that indemnifies the city against a lawsuit as well as foots the bill. The law firm of Meyers Nave in Oakland will defend the city against the lawsuit, said Lyions.

The 185,668-square-foot Walmart Supercenter is proposed to be the anchor store of a proposed shopping center at the northwest corner of Service and Mitchell roads. The project will serve as a southern gateway project to include 10 other retail shops of an additional 114,162 square feet of retail space, including three other major tenants and four smaller shops as well as a stand-alone retail building and two to three new restaurants.

Jacobson said her group will prevail.

"Walmart has an expansive team of San Francisco and Sacramento PR people, community organizers, attorneys, and consultants, but we believe we have a strong case to overturn the project and believe Walmart should be made to follow the law on any future development," said Jacobson. "This is a David vs. Goliath situation, and remember in the end, David prevailed."

Jolley did not prevail in his attempt to stop a Supercenter in Lodi. A group calling themselves Lodi First has appealed the decision to the 3rd District Court of Appeals. After the group naming themselves the "Association for Sensible and Informed Planning," lost a Fresno Superior Court decision supporting a Supercenter project there, Jolley filed an appeal.

Walmart projects in Antioch, Madeira, Chico, Citrus Heights and Hercules were also fought by Jolley.