By Jeff Hood

Wal-Mart Approval Overturned by Judge

A judge overturned Lodi’s approval of a Wal-Mart Supercenter on Tuesday, saying a study of the shopping center’s environmental effects is “legally defective.” San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Humphreys ruled Lodi’s study improperly ignored two proposed Supercenters in Stockton and their cumulative impact on urban decay. Humphreys also ruled the report failed to consider energy effects of the shopping center, proposed for the southwest corner of Lower Sacramento Road and Kettleman Lane, as required by California law.

“The court is ordering the city to do exactly what we asked the city to do,” said attorney Steve Herum, who filed the suit against Lodi, developer Darryl Browman and Wal-Mart on behalf of Lodi First, a group whose members are mostly anonymous. “A great deal of time and effort could have been avoided if the city had cut square corners and complied with the law when we asked them to.”

Humphreys ruled that Lodi’s approval of an insufficient environmental report was “an abuse of discretion.” “There was no meaningful consideration of whether the project could, together with the Stockton Wal-Mart Supercenters, trigger a series of events that could ultimately cause urban decay,” Humphreys wrote. “The absence of this analysis renders the (study) defective as an informational document upon which the public and its officials can rely in making informed judgments,” her order stated.

Herum and attorneys for the defendants argued the case before Humphreys on Nov. 9. Her ruling came in 41 days, well inside the 90-day requirement. Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin Loscotoff said the retailing chain had yet to decide if it would abide by the ruling or appeal to the 3rd District Court of Appeal.

“We’re disappointed with the court’s decision, but we’ll move forward in bringing the Supercenter project to Lodi,” he said. “We have to remember that this is a project approved by the City Council and has enjoyed overwhelming support from the residents of Lodi.”

But that could change. Mayor Susan Hitchcock said support could wane if a detailed analysis shows the Supercenter would result in urban decay, a chain of events leading to the physical deterioration of Lodi’s business. “Perhaps when some of those factors are studied in depth, maybe it turns out they can’t be mitigated or the price of mitigation is too steep,” said Hitchcock, the only council member who voted against the environmental study’s certification Feb. 3. “Maybe the impact to the community is too great, too harmful.”

That’s what Lodi First member Betsy Fiske said she wants to come out of the new study. “We’re happy and hopeful that this will cause the tide to turn,” she said.

Wal-Mart recently submitted architectural plans for its 226,868-square-foot store to city staff, but Community Development Director Randy Hatch responded with a letter stating an approval wouldn’t come until after a court ruling.

Hatch said city officials will discuss the ruling with City Attorney Steve Schwabauer and then meet with Wal-Mart and Browman Development representatives to consider their options. Wal-Mart and Browman Development are paying the city’s legal expenses.

Lodi First sued the city, Wal-Mart and Browman Development on March 18, 30 days after the City Council approved a use permit for the Supercenter. Lodi First earlier this year presented an economic study to City Council members claiming that three Lodi grocery stores and a major pharmacy would close if the Supercenter were built. The closures would create a glut of retail space that would take more than a decade to fill.

Wal-Mart’s analysis showed little harm to the city, but Humphreys criticized it for failing to account for the Stockton stores. Since Lodi’s City Council certified the flawed study, a new Supercenter has been proposed in Galt.