The Fresno Bee
By Marc Benjamin

Lawyers for a group trying to block construction of a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Clovis told a judge Friday that the city has failed to fully consider the project’s effects on water supply, other businesses and air quality.

During a 5 1/2-hour hearing in Fresno County Superior Court on the city’s environmental-impact report, lawyers for the Association for Sensible and Informed Planning said the city also did not properly examine the project’s effect on endangered species.

The Wal-Mart Supercenter would anchor a 492,000-square-foot shopping center along Herndon Avenue near Highway 168. Other tenants would be Kohl’s, Petco, Old Navy, Bed Bath & Beyond and Ross. If built, it would be the second-largest shopping center in Clovis after Sierra Vista Mall.

The environmental study is a critical step required by state law before the project can be built. Opponents hope Judge Wayne Ellison will ask for a new environmental report, which would delay construction indefinitely.

Clovis City Council members accepted the report in October, and the association sued in November. Friday’s hearing ended months of dueling court filings and gave both sides their chance to make their strongest case in court.

One problem, opponents said, is that the city never studied whether there is an adequate water supply for such a large development.

Lawyer Steve Herum, who represents the citizens group, said a water-supply assessment was required because the project would be larger than 500,000 square feet, the threshold set by state law. But City Attorney David Wolfe said the center would only include 492,000 square feet of new construction, meaning a water-supply assessment isn’t required.

The discrepancy is due to a 33,000-square-foot shopping center already on the site. That center was built by a different developer a decade ago. Wolfe said the city’s urban water-management plan was in the environmental report and addressed water issues. That, he said, should be good enough.

Another problem, Herum said, is that the city failed to properly follow state law in studying possible urban decay, such as the closure of other businesses once the new center is built.

The city’s report only studied Clovis and part of north Fresno, but Herum said the report should have gone farther. He said a study spanning the area within 30 miles — a typical market area for a Wal-Mart Supercenter — was required.

But Robert Hillison, who represents Wal-Mart, said 80% of shoppers will be from Clovis, so the city’s study was adequate.

Those shoppers will bring more traffic, and the city didn’t do a good enough job looking at the pollution that would come from their vehicles, said Natalie Weber, who also represents the citizens group. The assessment failed to analyze expected increases in cancer, asthma and respiratory illnesses, she said. Wolfe countered that the environmental report included a “detailed discussion” of pollution and illnesses, and that state law doesn’t require the statistics that Weber contends are needed.

Fairy shrimp that grow in puddles after rain also didn’t get enough scrutiny, opponents argued. Herum said the city didn’t show where the shrimp are found on the 40-acre site, even though the law requires such an analysis. He said the city allowed the property owner to destroy homes and trees that affected habitat not only for fairy shrimp, but also for tiger salamanders and possibly burrowing owls.

But Hillison said only fairy shrimp were on the site, and only during the rainy season. They were found in puddles left from tire tracks, not in naturally occurring vernal pools. He said there was no evidence of tiger salamander or burrowing owl at the site.

Judge Ellison told attorneys it will be a few weeks before he makes a decision about whether the environmental report is acceptable.