A group of Walnut residents filed suit against the city late last week, claiming that a proposed 26-acre shopping center anchored by a massive Target store violates the General Plan's mandate to preserve Walnut's "rural character."
The suit, filed Thursday by the Walnut Valley Environmental Action Committee, contends the Snow Creek Plaza project at Grand Avenue and La Puente Road should be dramatically reduced in size, and that a portion of the land be developed as a neighborhood park.
Also named in the suit are the City Council and Walnut's redevelopment agency, which is helping to finance the project and performed a limited environmental review of the site that the suit alleges was inadequate.
In a separate action, the City of Industry also filed suit in Pomona Superior Court Thursday against Walnut, its council and redevelopment agency, and the Snow Creek developers, alleging that the city prepared inadequate traffic, air quality and other environmental studies on the impact that the shopping center would have on a nearby intersection.
The project is expected to bring an estimated 7,000 cars to the area daily, and 78% of shoppers will likely come from outside of Walnut, according to Walnut staff reports on the project.
Industry officials said both cities should share the cost of expanding the intersection at Valley Boulevard and Grand Avenue to accommodate traffic caused by both the shopping center and potential industrial development on nearby Industry-owned land, including a proposed materials recovery facility, where trash would be separated from recyclables.
The suits are the most recent blow to a controversial project held up for months by the protests of angry Walnut residents, who gathered more than 2,000 signatures to oppose it earlier this year.
The Walnut City Council approved the development Aug. 25, overriding several key recommendations of a residents committee that battled with developers for five months over project details. Many residents opposed the size of the project, particularly the Target, and said vehicles should not be granted access to the mall from La Puente Road, a route for children on the way to school.
The shopping mall is a marked departure from the horse trails, buffered landscaping and rural atmosphere that led residents to choose Walnut as a place to settle, and deviates from the letter and intent of the General Plan, the suit alleges.
"This is not a vindictive, sour grapes-type thing," said Tommy Smith, a Walnut attorney who supports the lawsuit. "People are genuinely concerned about their community, their town, and what happens to it. They genuinely feel that this is an inappropriate project.
"We're not Tennessee. We're not cows and chickens, but we are rural, as much as we can be rural in the Los Angeles Basin," Smith said. "I don't think we really want a Target, and I don't think it's Target. We don't want Neiman Marcus or Nordstrom, or J.C. Penney. We don't want any destination shopping center."
Smith said he hopes the suit will persuade the city to back off.
"What I devoutly hope is that there's a political solution to this, where the Target project is just quietly abandoned by the city," he said.
Mayor William T. Choctaw, however, who voted to approve the project at the emotional five-hour council session Aug. 25, said that is unlikely.
"I stand by the project," Choctaw said. "I think it would provide $300,000 to $500,000 a year in sales-tax revenue, and many needed services. I view anything that's obstructionary to the project as not in the best interests of Walnut."
Developers will also have to pay a $76,000 assessment to the Walnut school district before building, he said, a much-needed infusion.
"I think that Walnut does retain its small, rural atmosphere. We all agree that that's what is unique about Walnut. But I think we also have to be visionaries, and we have to do what's in the best interest of all of our citizens," Choctaw said.
Snow Creek Plaza will ensure the city future financial stability, he said.
"Our goal is to get this project built, and we're still going to proceed in that direction," said Jack R. Godard, vice president of acquisitions and development for Shea Business Properties, which owns the land and plans to develop it with the Phoenix-based Vestar Development Co. "We hope it won't affect the schedule or the development. But obviously, lawsuits can."
Godard said he had not yet seen either complaint and could not comment on details, but he said developers are proceeding with plans to grade the site as soon as possible.
"Our hope is that we could be doing some of the mass grading by the middle of October. We're working with the city on getting the permits now," he said.
Correspondent Andrew LePage contributed to this report.