Politics & Government

Clovis expects lawsuit over Wal-Mart

The Clovis City Council gave its blessing early Tuesday to plans for a Wal-Mart Supercenter -- but that's unlikely to be the end of it. Opponents are now expected to head to court to slow the project once more.

City officials said they expected to be sued no matter what decision they made.

Opponents "have been actively engaged in the process since the City Council began reconsidering environmental review," said Clovis City Attorney Tom Riggs. "They put a lot of time and effort into it, so I would presume they will take it to the next level."

The council's 3-2 vote was the culmination of a four-year battle over a 492,000-square-foot shopping center at Herndon and Clovis avenues that opponents have said would bring traffic, noise and the potential for more crime.

Council Member Harry Armstrong said he expects a legal fight. "If it was turned down, one side sues," he said, "and if it's approved, the other side sues. It's a Catch-22."

Before the 6 1/2-hour council hearing Monday night, City Council members met with the city's lawyers and were told to expect legal action if they followed city staff recommendations to approve the shopping center without seeking more public comment on the environmental report.

Last month, the council conducted a six-hour hearing on the shopping center.

If a lawsuit is filed, it wouldn't be the first time the matter has gone to court. In 2004, opponents sued in Fresno County Superior Court after the city approved the project. They argued that the city had relied on environmental data that was more than 10 years old.

Judge Wayne Ellison ruled that the city must do an environmental review. City officials must return to court with developer Dave Paynter to show they have responded to that ruling. No date has been set for that court appearance, and it's not clear whether another lawsuit would be filed beforehand.

Riggs said it may take several weeks for the city to learn whether the judge will approve the city's environmental review.

On Monday night, the City Council approved an environmental report examining pollution, traffic and other effects of the shopping center, anchored by Wal-Mart. The center also would include Kohl's, Petco, Ross and Old Navy.

Attorney Natalie Weber, who represents Save Our Crossroads Center, a shopping area at Bullard and Minnewawa avenues, said during the hearing that the city's environmental report is "defective."

Weber's law firm filed the 2004 lawsuit on behalf of the Association for Sensible and Informed Planning.

"I do expect that the next body that will take a look at this is the judicial branch," Mayor Bob Whalen said Tuesday.

Armstrong and fellow Council Member Lynne Ashbeck cast the two dissenting votes. Armstrong said opponents will probably sue over the traffic study, pollution and water issues. He said the report didn't require enough road improvements.

Council Member Nathan Magsig said he fully supported the environmental document, however.

"I did not come across any member of our staff or legal counsel who had any concerns about the document," he said.

In approving the shopping center, the Clovis council also voted early Tuesday to place limits on Wal-Mart's store hours. Instead of a 24-hour store, the council backed 5 a.m. to midnight as operating hours because of police concerns about crime.

Wal-Mart spokesman Aaron Rios said he was "positive overall" about the council's decision.

"We are pleased with getting the development approved, and there is always the ability to come back and seek 24 hours," he said.

Rios predicts more legal haggling before the issues are settled and said it will be about two years before the Wal-Mart Supercenter opens.

If Wal-Mart does return to operate around the clock, the company needs Planning Commission and City Council backing.

"I want to make sure there is as much public input as possible," Magsig said.