Wal-Mart was stunned last Friday by a court ruling in a superstore project in the city of American Canyon, California, where local officials tripped over their own enthusiasm for the giant retail project known as Napa Junction. Construction on the superstore is well underway, but further work on the store is likely to come to sudden halt. The state Court of Appeals in San Francisco overturned an earlier decision by the Napa Superior Court, which had ruled against two citizen groups in their efforts to block Wal-Mart. In a 37 page decision, Justice Linda Gemello found that the “city prejudicially violated the California Environmental Quality Act… (and) prejudically violated its zoning ordinance.” The appeals court ordered the Napa Superior Court to consider halting further work on the store until more environmental reviews are finished. This case is similar to a case last year in Bakersfield, California, where sloppy reviews by the city led to a halt in construction of a Wal-Mart supercenter. Local officials in American Canyon gave Wal-Mart everything thing they wanted, but city officials could not prevent the groups American Canyon United for Responsible Growth and Citizens Against Poor Planning from taking the case to court. The citizens charged that the city made a legal mistake when they failed to conduct a detailed environmental review of the superstore proposed from Highway 29. They also claimed that the proposal was altered significantly after the city conducted its initial review. Wal-Mart tried to get by with a larger store, and a different site plan after the city’s review was over, and lawyers for the citizens said it was essentially a new plan that needed new studies. The Appeals Court sided with the citizens, noting that the supercenter represented a change from the original plan of a shopping center with several stores in it. “We conclude that the supercenter proposal substantially changed the type and size of the retail component,” the court said. The court added that no indication was given that a big box store would be part of the plan, operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week or that it would likely draw more traffic from a regional market than the city’s studies anticipated. “The city’s low calculation of the supercenter’s square footage fatally undermines its conclusion that the supercenter proposal would have no significant effect on traffic,” the opinion concluded.
Until this decision, Wal-Mart thought they were on track to open this 176,000 s.f. superstore by January. No doubt city officials were confident that the appeals court would uphold the Superior Court decision, but by keeping their appeal live, local citizens have now beaten the odds. The city will no doubt try to start again with more environmental studies, and reach the same conclusions that the larger footprint of the store won’t matter, but this whole process will throw Wal-Mart into major delays. To do this, citizens have had to raise a lot of money to assert their legal rights. But the lesson here is to persevere, because if you don’t fight, you have a 100% change of losing. The citizens in American Canyon have done a remarkable job of throwing the largest retailer on earth into chaos. But don’t feel too bad for Wal-Mart. They are moving ahead for a supercenter 5 miles away in Vallejo, where local officials are every bit as blind as in American Canyon. For earlier stories, search Newsflash by “American Canyon.”