Two Walmarts are proposed within a 15-mile radius.
One, planned for Galt, would include 133,000 square feet and a small grocery department. Developers want to place it on Twin Cities Road.
The other, a proposed Supercenter for Lodi, would be 226,000 square feet. It would include a substantial grocery section and be built on a parcel at the corner of Lower Sacramento Road and Kettleman Lane.
But Galt’s Walmart, after a successful round of mediation over just four weeks, is moving toward construction.
Meanwhile, Lodi’s Supercenter project remains stuck. It has been mired in legal challenges for seven years — with no groundbreaking in sight.
So why the difference?
Lodi City Attorney Stephen Schwabauer said it’s all about money.
“The Galt opposition was not as well-funded or as strong because the Lodi opposition has continued to push. The only solution for them is to not have the Lodi Supercenter be built,” he said.
Since its approval in late 2004, building the store in Lodi has been the focus of a voter initiative and at least half a dozen lawsuits using California’s tough environmental laws.
It has never been made public who is funding the opposition, although some presume it is the grocery unions. Safeway, S-Mart, Food-4-Less and Raley’s all operate grocery stores within a mile of the proposed Lodi Supercenter. In Galt, only Raley’s is nearby and its representatives have never spoken out against the project.
Few changes made in Galt
In 2007, Walmart proposed building Galt’s 133,000-square-foot store at the corner of Twin Cities Road and Fermoy Way. The Galt City Council originally approved the project in April 2010, and a lawsuit was filed by Davis-based attorney William Kopper on behalf of a citizens group made up almost entirely of neighbors near the proposed site.
In November, Galt Citizens for Sensible Planning agreed to dismiss its lawsuit if the city complied with hiring an outside noise consultant to perform monitoring twice during the first year of Walmart’s operation.
Members also asked that minor site plan modifications be made, including additional landscape, a taller wall, a slight decrease in parking and a 15-foot increase in distance between the store and adjacent residences to the south and east.
Galt City Manager Jason Behrmann pointed out that Lodi already has a Walmart and Galt doesn’t. That may have been why his staff pushed for a timely resolution, he said.
“I think both sides recognized the store was going to be built, and the (Sensible Planning) group decided it should just mediate,” Behrmann said. “Whether it was being driven by the neighbors, Walmart or the unnamed party that was backing the lawsuit, who knows?”
Kopper has represented other Walmart opponents including groups against Supercenters in Red Bluff, Oroville and Stockton’s Spanos West Park.
That group filed suit under the name Stockton Citizens for Sensible Planning. The court decided in April 2010 that Kopper’s lawsuit challenging the city’s store approval came too late, thus clearing the way for a 207,000-square-foot store. It will be the city’s second Supercenter.
Lodi opposition years old
Lodi First and Citizens for Open Government took issue with Lodi’s proposed Supercenter early on and filed separate lawsuits in 2005 against the project.
Lodi First has claimed the Lodi City Council’s original environmental impact report did not sufficiently address the project’s potential affect on urban decay, pollution and traffic.
San Joaquin County Judge Elizabeth Humphreys ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in deciding that the project’s environmental reports needed more studies. The retailer did the additional studies required by court and then had to go through the city approval process again.
The council approved the store at a meeting in March 2009 in a 3-2 vote, with Councilwomen Susan Hitchcock and JoAnne Mounce voting against the project. It then had to go back to the court to be approved by Humphreys, since she issued the original decision in 2005.
As in Galt, the parties did mediate and discuss early settlement, but to no avail.
In 2010, Citizens for Open Government filed paperwork appealing Humphreys' decision, which would have allowed construction to move forward. At the time, Schwabauer said the appeal process would probably take at least a year.
In May of that year, Humphreys had ruled that the retailer’s environmental impact report met state requirements, and she rejected arguments from both challengers, Lodi First and Citizens for Open Government.
By throwing out the case, it cleared the way for the retailer to build — until the latest appeal was filed. It is currently in the Third District Court of Appeals awaiting a decision.
What’s the difference?
Local attorney Ann Cerney, a member Citizens for Open Government, said the difference between Lodi and Galt’s projects, and even subsequent litigation which moved rather quickly, is that Galt’s was fought by a community group, not a large organized group like Lodi First. That group is represented by a big-name attorney with few local residents.
“They don’t ever give in, because they don’t have to. They have the money to fight it,” Cerney said.
Stockton-based attorney Steven Herum has represented Lodi First for years, only recently turning the reins over to his assistant, Brett Jolley. In addition, Herum led a successful campaign in the mid-2000s against two Supercenters in Bakersfield and at least nine other California cities.
In many cases, lawsuits against Walmart have been filed on behalf of obscure, often secretive, community groups that have few known members. Some of them have been backed by the labor unions, while others have few apparent sources of money.
But the suits haven’t stopped Walmart from opening any stores, according to company spokesman Peter Kanelos. “All they’ve done is delay the stores,” he said.
Attorneys such as Bakersfield-based Craig N. Beardsley, who has dueled with the Walmart opposition for years, said such lawsuits in California are being backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which has fought Walmart’s entry into the state’s grocery market.
“No one will admit anything, and I couldn’t swear on a stack of Bibles that that’s the way it is,” Beardsley said, “but we all believe that to be true.”
In 2005, union spokeswoman Jill Cashen acknowledged the union backed “four or five lawsuits in California,” but said there are another 25 or 30 suits in which UFCW isn’t involved.
Typically, California’s anti-Supercenter lawsuits are filed on behalf of a local community group that often doesn’t disclose its members or where it gets its funding for the court challenge.
Herum, too, has declined to say who pays for the suits, and said that he’s never represented a union in 25 years of practicing law.
But “if my interests happen to align with the labor union, so what?” Herum said, adding that Supercenters have potential to “destroy the economic future of the Central Valley.”
When it comes to Galt’s Walmart, Behrmann suspects whoever was behind the litigation was tired of fighting this particular store. The city took Galt Citizens for Sensible Planning to court to find out who was funding the lawsuit, but the court ruled against the city.
“Our assumption is they were tired of putting money into the litigation,” he said.
Out of the 20 such cases Kopper has brought against Walmart, this is the first he agreed to settle before it went through the appeals process, according to Behrmann.
“Walmart said this is the first time ever in the state of California that there’s been a mediation,” he said of lawsuits brought against building stores.
No matter the reason Galt’s project was ushered ahead, officials there are looking forward to not only the jump in sales tax revenue — an estimated $500,000 annually — but additional jobs and retail opportunities not currently available. Residents now drive to either Elk Grove or Lodi to buy incidentals such as underwear and socks.
“Galt has very little retail available, but the city of Lodi already offers choices,” Mayor Barbara Payne said, adding that Galtonians are aware their tax dollars are being spent outside city limits. “(They) want to increase the revenue for their own town.”
In the end, Payne said, people of all economic levels want to find the bargain prices Walmart offers.
“Considering all of these reasons, I believe public opinion has put pressure on those opposing Walmart to think of the needs of the community rather than their own personal objections,” she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Contact reporter Jennifer Bonnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.