Foes of Merced Wal-Mart distribution center see last hope dashed

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comMarch 13, 2013 

The state Supreme Court declined to hear the final appeal of the Wal-Mart distribution center case, city officials said Wednesday, ending a more than 3-year-old court battle brought by opponents to try to block the project.

The project and the resulting lawsuit have been a "tremendous" effort, said City Manager John Bramble.

"This really shows the hard work of a lot of people," he said. "We all did a professional job on the environmental impact review report. We all made sure the process was as transparent as possible."

Bramble gave kudos to the previous city manager, the planning, the engineering and the economic development departments, as well as the city attorney's office and the City Council.

The Merced Alliance for Responsible Growth filed an appeal to the state Supreme Court after losing a lower court decision in November.

Kyle Stockard, lead plaintiff in the case, said he hadn't heard the news. But if true, he said he would be "disappointed."

The Supreme Court asked for an extension about a week ago to determine whether it would hear the case, Stockard said. The court accepts only a small number of cases.

"We were kind of hopeful when they asked for another week to review the materials," he said. "We thought they might be taking it more seriously than the other courts had."

The alliance filed its first legal challenge in 2009, claiming the city's environmental review of the project didn't adequately address the project's impacts on the city.

A Merced Superior Court judge and the 5th District Court of Appeal in Fresno disagreed, leading the group to appeal to the high court.

The alliance consisted of several local residents and was represented by Lippe Gaffney Wagner LLP, a law firm based in San Francisco.

Wal-Mart proposed the center to the city in 2005, pledging to create 900 full-time jobs with an average wage of $17.50.

It's still not clear when Wal-Mart will break ground on the 1.2 million-square-foot facility, planned for south of Childs Avenue at the northwest corner of Gerard Avenue and Tower Road.

"I know that it's always been in their plan to be under construction by late 2013 or early 2014," Bramble said. "We'll talk to them early next week and sit down and chart out the plans."

The project is expected to bring in an initial 600 jobs and up to roughly 1,200 positions over time, according to city officials.

The 24-hour distribution center is expected to generate about 450 truck trips into and out of the facility every day.

It will likely take two years to permit and construct the distribution center, according to city officials.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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