Lawsuit over Atascadero Walmart project to be heard in court Tuesday

tstrickland@thetribunenews.comMarch 18, 2013 

Anna Pence and other Walmart supporters wave fans handed out by Walmart to show support for the project at the June 26, 2012, Atascadero City Council meeting. Later in the evening, the council approved the project.

JOE JOHNSTON — jjohnston@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

A citizens group that has actively opposed bringing a Walmart shopping center to Atascadero's north side will argue Tuesday in court that the city abused its power by allowing the retail giant to build in town without a full vetting of the project against state environmental law.

San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Jac Crawford is scheduled to hear the case in the court’s Paso Robles branch. The lawsuit was filed last summer by Save Atascadero, a group spearheaded by residents Tom Comar and Lee Perkins.

Save Atascadero’s San Francisco-based lawyer, Mark Wolfe with M.R. Wolfe & Associates, makes a series of allegations claiming the city didn't adequately analyze how the Walmart center and an adjacent shopping center called The Annex could affect the neighborhood.

While project critics have long cited costly road improvements as an argument against Walmart, the lawsuit also brings to light a relatively new issue: the potential risk of cancer-causing air pollution that the development could bring.

Increased traffic in the area, including diesel-fueled delivery trucks, will add unsafe levels of carcinogenic air contaminants, which the environmental report failed to properly identify, Wolfe claims.

Save Atascadero also says that the city failed to make available a health-risk assessment outlining such potential impacts to existing homes around the project at El Camino Real and Del Rio Road.

City officials have long denied such claims.

“The city went to great lengths to include everyone and study each issue impacted by the Walmart project,” City Manager Wade McKinney told The Tribune.

After the city’s six years of study, community meetings and public hearings, McKinney says staff has considered all aspects of the project before approving it.

“The environmental impact report is complete and well done, we anticipate that the court will find in favor of the city, and we will finally proceed with this project,” he said.

The environmental report was conducted through Michael Brandman Associates of Orange County.

Save Atascadero is seeking to stop the project so further study of the effects can be done. It is also seeking attorney's fees.

The lawsuit lists Wal-Mart Stores Inc., The Rottman Group, Montecito Bank and Trust, Engineering Development Associates and Omni Design Group as parties in interest. They are not defendants in the suit, however.

The city approved the developments last June after nearly seven years of debate, including a failed ballot measure against large big-box stores in town that was also spearheaded by Save Atascadero.

Meanwhile, construction on the new store can't begin while it's in litigation. But the city is continuing related plans to bring the store to town, including engineering studies for three roundabouts slated for the Del Rio Road interchange over Highway 101 to accommodate the additional traffic the shopping centers are expected to generate. The lawsuit specifies that number as being a little more than 9,000 new daily trips to the area after the retail centers open.

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The trial is expected to start at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Paso Robles branch of San Luis Obispo Superior Court, 901 Park St. Judge Jac Crawford will hear the case in Department P-2.

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