The Wal-Mart supercenter proposed for American Canyon, California is on ice for now. A Superior Court Judge in Napa on May 3rd chilled the retailer’s plans by ordering a complete halt to any further site work on the store until opponents of the project get their day in court. The case will not begin until June 27th, and could continue for months. We reported several days ago that American Canyon officials had given Wal-Mart preliminary permits to begin grading and some site work, despite the fact that lawsuits had been filed challenging the city’s approval of the 176,000 s.f superstore. Now the site will have to sit tight until the court case is settled. Judge Raymond Guadagni granted a stay on preliminary construction permits the city issued, but the Judge forced the American Canyon Community United for Responsible Growth to post a $180,000 bond to protect Wal-Mart from damages due to lost construction time if the lawsuits are resolved in the company’s favor. Wal-Mart had asked for a $3 million bond. “This is a huge victory for us,” American Canyon United member Kathleen Shamet told the Times-Herald newspaper. “We are grateful the judge has given American Canyon the opportunity to move forward and work out our differences and problems with a project we feel was erroneously approved.” A Wal-Mart spokesman charged that the citizen’s group is just a front for unions, and said, “Unfortunately, it’s another classic example of labor leaders using the court to subvert the will of the people as expressed by their elected leaders.” Apparently Wal-Mart doesn’t think the First Amendment is an expression of the will of the people, but a handful of city councilors is. Wal-Mart and the developer, Lake Street Ventures, are being sued for violating the city’s ordinances in approving the project. The plaintiffs charge that the city did not provide an adequate report under the California Environmental Quality Act, leaving the city without any findings of fact on the store’s economic impact on other businesses. A second group is suing the city, and the suits have been consolidated by the court. The city’s lawyer and Wal-Mart claim that no one opposed the project until they learned the identity of the tenant, which amounts to discrimination against the company. The Judge agreed with the citizens that any construction should await a final decision on the lawsuits.”The court … concludes that a stay is warranted to prevent a certain degree of irreversible momentum, which could be set in place by allowing the paving and pouring of the pad for this very substantial project to go forward,” he wrote. The Judge said his decision was meant to save American Canyon from “a Bakersfield type of dilemma,” referring to a 2004 5th District Court of Appeals decision that left Wal-Mart with a partially-finished development facing an uncertain legal future. The developer complained that the delay could cause him financial problems, because some of his sites have to be pre-leased for him to begin construction, and some potential tenants might be spooked if the anchor is delayed or canceled.
Citizen opposition can turn a three month permitting process into a one or two year process. A delay this week in Leominster,Massachusetts ended up killing a Wal-Mart. Developers complain that the public process is messy and long. It would be easier for such developers if the public had no legal rights. But as it is, Wal-Mart and the developer in American Canyon are just going to have to put up with democracy for at least a few months longer. For the citizens, they have to come up with a $180,000 bond, which also has a chilling effect on the First Amendment. Many community groups would be hard pressed to come up with that much money. For earlier stories, search by “American Canyon” and “Bakersfield.”