City Zoning Ordinance That Prohibits “Big Box” Stores Is A Legitimate Exercise Of Police Power, And Does Not Require Environmental Review


In 2003, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (“Wal-Mart”) began planning to develop a Wal-Mart Supercenter in the City of Turlock (“City”). Later that year, after other local businesses voiced opposition to Wal-Mart’s plans, the City adopted a zoning ordinance that prohibited stores larger than 100,000 square feet from selling groceries, in effect banning combination department/grocery store supercenters.

Wal-Mart sued, claiming the ordinance violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), and was an arbitrary and capricious legislative act designed specifically to keep Wal-Mart from doing business in the City. The trial court sided with the City, ruling that the ordinance was a proper exercise of the City’s police power and was not subject to CEQA because it was not a “project” as defined by CEQA guidelines. Wal-Mart appealed.


The Court said CEQA review of the ordinance might be appropriate if it resulted in a reasonably foreseeable physical change in the environment. However, Wal-Mart’s assertion that alternate development would occur if its supercenter were prohibited failed to meet that standard, the Court said, because it was merely an assumption and not supported by substantial evidence. Furthermore, even if those changes were to occur, Wal-Mart could not demonstrate that they resulted directly because of the passage of the ordinance. The only reasonably foreseeable result of the ordinance was that supercenters, such as Wal-Mart, would be prohibited, and since none currently existed, the absence of one in the future could not be construed as a “change,” the Court said. Therefore, the Court concluded the ordinance did not require new environmental scrutiny.

The Court added that “it is neither our duty nor our option to second-guess” the City’s determination that the ordinance was necessary to protect the public welfare. The ordinance did not unfairly single out Wal-Mart, but prohibited all discount superstores within City boundaries. “The simple fact that Wal-Mart is the first company to feel the effect of the ordinance is not sufficient to establish that Wal-Mart was targeted in any unconstitutional manner,” the Court said.

The trial court’s judgment was affirmed.

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