By Loretta Kalb

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2008 | Page 4B
The classic fight over a Wal-Mart Supercenter in a California city has erupted anew in Lodi, where the issue is so hot that hundreds of residents are expected to pack tonight’s City Council meeting.

The council is being asked to overturn its own city Planning Commission, which in October refused to bless a revised environmental impact report for the Supercenter and the 36-acre Lodi Shopping Center that would house it.

Like most such fights, there is a lot more to this push for a 216,710-square-foot Wal-Mart in west Lodi.

The City Council initially approved the environmental impact report in February 2005. But approval didn’t stick.

Before the end of 2005, a San Joaquin Superior Court judge rejected the report as deficient.

The grounds, among other things, were that the document failed to adequately address the question of whether urban decay would result.

Translation: Whether businesses might go belly-up, retail centers might languish and the area’s economy might suffer.

Tonight’s council decision is likely to be challenged, too.

Lodi Mayor Larry Hansen said Tuesday that he fears the matter again will end up in court, no matter what the council decides.

“The issue before the City Council is not, ‘Do you love or hate Wal-Mart?’ ” Hansen said. “They have applied, as they have the legal right to, for building permits and the opportunity to construct a new store.”

The issue is whether this time around the environmental assessment adequately addresses the effects of a project.

As it has in other communities, this fight has split the city’s residents.

Most previous proposals have been wins for Wal-Mart, which has 35 Supercenters in California.

But some failed. In 2005, the developer of a proposed 247,724-square-foot project in Elk Grove withdrew his plans after intense opposition.

In Lodi, as it was in Elk Grove, there are thousands of residents who have vowed to support Wal-Mart.

They cite plenty of reasons, said Aaron Rios, a California spokesman for Wal-Mart.

Among them: They’re worried about their budgets and the need to buy groceries at low cost in what has become one of the nation’s worst economic eras.

Last week, the retailer issued a study showing that 21 Supercenters in California resulted in more sales tax revenue and an overall increase in business permits.

But those survey results likely won’t quell the fear.

Brett Jolley, a Stockton land-use attorney, will represent the opponents’ group, Lodi First, at the council meeting tonight. The grass-roots group was one of two that successfully challenged the Wal-Mart project in 2005, Jolley said.

“We’re very pleased at this point because the Planning Commission voted 5-1 to refuse to certify the EIR,” Jolley said. “That’s meaningful because you had a supermajority saying, ‘We did not have enough information before us to even understand the environmental effects of this project.'”

Mayor Hansen says he is prepared for the meeting.

“I don’t know that I’ve studied any issue more thoroughly,” he said.

Still, he’s apprehensive.

“When this decision is made,” he said, “half the town is not going to be speaking to me any more.”