MERCED — The environmental lawsuit against Wal-Mart's proposed Merced distribution center will be filled with months of behind-the-scenes legal wrangling and little courtroom drama.
Merced residents Tom Grave, Kyle Stockard and Joel Knox, representing the Merced Alliance for Responsible Growth, two weeks ago asked a judge to overturn the City Council's vote to approve the 1.1 million-square-foot project. They believe the project's negative impacts weren't adequately studied and explained.
In light of the challenge, council members will vote Monday on two contracts, one to hire a law firm to represent the city in the case and another to have Wal-Mart pay the legal fees.
Wal-Mart spokesman Aaron Rios was unavailable for comment.
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The case will wind its way through a settlement conference, a series of procedural steps and written arguments before a Merced County Superior Court judge weighs in.
All that probably will take about nine months, Merced City Attorney Greg Diaz said.
Presiding Judge John Kirihara, one of the county's judges versed in the California Environmental Quality Act, has been assigned the case. He will decide if the project's environmental impact report fully studied the distribution center's impact.
The city hired a third party to review the report for any problems or omissions. The goal was to make the report bulletproof.
Diaz said his cursory reading of the complaint didn't bring up any issues that hadn't been talked about before.
"There was nothing new that surprised me," Diaz said. "It was pretty straightforward."
Kirihara won't decide whether the project should be approved. He'll decide only the quality of the report. Should he find a significant error, the environmental impact report would need to be fixed and reopened for public comment.
"I call it the equivalent of a fix-it ticket," Diaz said.
The council would need to vote again on the project.
The lawsuit was put on an alternative-dispute resolution track, which encourages the plaintiff and defendants to broker a deal out of court. Diaz said it's commonly used in civil cases involving money. "I'm not sure how it'd work here," he said.
It's unlikely Wal-Mart would be interested in meeting any of the growth alliance's demands, which include looking at scaling down the center or adding requirements to offset air quality impacts.
Grave said he hasn't heard from the city or Wal-Mart about his group's offer. Its interest, he said, is to make the distribution center as clean as possible.
"We're concerned about the local health impact," he said. "We're doing the job we think the city didn't do."