California Court of Appeal Upholds Walmart Expansion EIR

Environmental/Land Use Alert (October 24, 2019)

In Chico Advocates for a Responsible Economy v. City of Chico (2019), Case No. C087142, issued September 5, 2019, the California Court of Appeal for the Third Appellate District upheld certification of an environmental impact report (EIR) to expand an existing Walmart store. On appeal, Chico Advocates challenged the EIR’s urban decay impact analysis and the City’s statement of overriding considerations. This case is one of the first to apply the Sierra Club v. County of Fresno standards of review to an urban decay impact analysis.

As background, in 2009, Walmart sought approval to expand an existing store by 98,000 square feet, add a twelve-pump gas station, and create one outparcel for future development. The City did not approve that project.

Then, in 2015, Walmart again sought approval to expand the same store. The new project proposed to expand the Walmart by 49,000 square feet, add an eight-pump gas station, and create two new outparcels for future development. The City approved this project and adopted a statement of overriding considerations as to its significant environmental impacts.

Chico Advocates first argued the EIR’s urban decay analysis was deficient because: (1) the analysis failed to consider the elimination of close and convenient shopping as a significant environmental impact; and (2) the analysis relied upon flawed methodology.

As to the first contention, the Court, relying on Sierra Club v. County of Fresno (2018) 6 Cal.5th 202, applied a de novo standard of review. “‘[W]hether a description of an environmental impact is insufficient because it lacks analysis or omits the magnitude of the impact is not a substantial evidence question.’” The Court determined the argument that the EIR fails to analyze the elimination of close and convenient shopping is a predominately legal question of whether the EIR contains sufficient detail to operate as an informational document. Thus, the Court reviewed the issue de novo. Using the de novo standard, the Court upheld the EIR’s analysis because eliminating other shopping centers was not a physical environmental impact that required analysis under CEQA.

The Court also upheld the City’s choice of methodology used in the urban decay analysis. The Court applied the substantial evidence standard of review and determined Plaintiff’s challenges were “nothing more than differences of opinion,” which is not enough to prove the agency’s decision was unsupported by substantial evidence.

Plaintiffs also challenged the City’s adoption of a statement of overriding considerations. Plaintiff’s main concern was the City failed to explain why it rejected the project presented for its consideration in 2009 but adopted a statement of overriding considerations for the present project in 2015. The Court rejected the contention that the City needs to make specific findings reconciling its earlier decision. “Here, under different circumstances and with different decisionmakers, the City reached a different conclusion. It is not our task to review the wisdom of the Project or to pass upon the correctness of the City’s policy decision”. Ultimately, the Court determined the statement of overriding considerations was supported by substantial evidence and upheld certification of the EIR.

[This case alert does not constitute legal advice and no attorney-client relationship is created by viewing or responding to this alert.  Legal counsel should be sought for answers to specific legal questions.]