Superior Court judge rules against Atascadero Walmart foes

Judge Jac A. Crawford questions attorneys in his Paso Robles courtroom on Tuesday, March 19, 2013, as a civil lawsuit gets under way concerning the environmental impacts of Walmart in Atascadero.
Judge Jac A. Crawford questions attorneys in his Paso Robles courtroom on Tuesday, March 19, 2013, as a civil lawsuit gets under way concerning the environmental impacts of Walmart in Atascadero. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

A San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge on Monday tentatively ruled against a local citizens group that claimed the city of Atascadero violated state environmental laws by not fully vetting a Walmart-anchored shopping center and adjacent development before approving them for the city’s north side.

City leaders have long said they dedicated years of study, community meetings and public hearings on the developments and considered all aspects before approving them in June.

While project critics have repeatedly cited costly road improvements as an argument against building the shopping centers at the corner of El Camino Real and Del Rio Road, the lawsuit also brought up the potential risk of cancer-causing air pollution from increased traffic in the area, including diesel-fueled delivery trucks.

In August, a group called Save Atascadero spearheaded by residents Tom Comar and Lee Perkins filed to stop the project so further study of the impacts could be done.

Save Atascadero has actively opposed bringing the shopping centers to town, prompting nearly seven years of debate and a failed ballot measure against building big-box stores.

The lawsuit was the latest in the group’s efforts and effectively prevented construction on the sites.

If Monday’s ruling becomes final, construction could begin, although a timeline wasn’t given. Before the lawsuit, Walmart was slated to open in Atascadero as early as 2014.

The tentative ruling comes about a month after Superior Court Judge Jac Crawford heard the case in a full afternoon of arguments at the court’s Paso Robles branch.

The arguments centered on issues surrounding public access, state environmental law and increased traffic associated with the new shopping centers.

A copy of Crawford’s tentative ruling, dated April 19 but released to the parties late Monday, says the city acted lawfully.

Save Atascadero’s arguments hinged largely on disclosure of an air toxins report, saying the report wasn’t included in an environmental review on time and that evidence of such toxins merited a closer look.

Crawford disagreed, saying in his ruling, “There is sufficient evidence in the record to support the city’s conclusion in the final (environmental review report) that there are no significant (toxic air contaminate) impacts. Conversely, the city did not fail to proceed as required by law.”

Crawford also ruled that the traffic impacts to the Del Rio Road interchange, where roundabouts are planned to offset the shopping centers’ added traffic, are consistent with the city’s plan for growth.

Comar on Monday said Save Atascadero is reviewing Crawford’s tentative ruling with its representation at San Francisco-based M.R. Wolfe & Associates.

“They’re not ready to make a comment on whether there are sufficient grounds for an appeal — there may be,” Comar said.

Atascadero Councilman Bob Kelley said city leaders are pleased with the decision. Mayor Tom O’Malley issued a similar statement, adding that the council will review the case with City Attorney Brian Pierik in closed session today.

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. The other shopping center, The Annex, is partially owned by The Rottman Group and Montecito Bank and Trust.

Next up, the judge will either affirm or alter his tentative ruling after meeting with both parties once again. The date for the next court hearing, should one come about, wasn’t immediately available.

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