WALNUT CREEK -- A lawsuit filed over a planned Safeway, retail and housing center in eastern Walnut Creek claims the city illegally approved the project and violated the California Environmental Quality Act in doing so.

The suit filed in Contra Costa Superior Court in July by a group called Friends of Walnut Creek alleges "the city illegally pre-committed to the project" and the environmental report "failed to adequately respond to comments."

It asks the court to order the city to void all project approvals for The Orchards and to require the city to perform another environmental report. The suit also asks for an injunction to block construction while the suit is pending.

The Orchards is a massive 24-acre plan set to include a new 55,000-square-foot Safeway store and other shops, plus open space and senior housing, at the intersection of Ygnacio Valley and Oak Grove roads. The City Council approved the project June 17.

But from the beginning, a vocal group of residents has opposed development on the half-vacant parcel at the southeast entrance to the Shadelands Business Park. Concerns in the lawsuit are focused on the removal of trees, additional traffic and how a new center will impact other adjacent grocery-anchored centers.

"We don't see it as an anti-development position," said Steve Elster, who lives near the project and is acting as attorney on the suit. "We are not saying that nothing should be built there or that even The Orchards shouldn't be built. We just think the true environmental impacts should be weighed."


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Specifically, the impact on the Nob Hill grocery store in Citrus Market Place, which sits at the entrance to The Woodlands neighborhood, where Elster and many Friends supporters live.

"The traffic and the impact on Citrus Market Place -- those two are intertwined," said Elster, who is spearheading the opposition group. "It's clear in the city-prepared (environmental impact report) that Nob Hill is very likely to close, and they did not evaluate the effect of Nob Hill closing, the traffic that would be caused because people would have to shop elsewhere. They need to go back and do the complete job."

Elster said many people would be happy with the project if it didn't include a Safeway, concluding that then Nob Hill would survive.

The city disagrees with the suit, and officials say they followed the law.

"The city's Planning Commission and City Council both heard and received extensive public input prior to approving the project," City Attorney Steven Mattas said. "The city prepared a comprehensive environmental impact report for the project that evaluated all potential environmental impacts."

Safeway and Property Development Centers spokeswoman Wendy Gutshall said the environmental impact report was "fully vetted" and is "valid" but wouldn't comment further because of the pending litigation. The suit does not delay the city's consideration of design review issues and does not prevent the city from processing any building permits requested by Safeway, Mattas said.

Friends of Walnut Creek is an unincorporated group that has done some fundraising Elster said. Nearly 200 people are supporting the effort, but he would not name any donors or say whether anyone has business interests in seeing The Orchards not built.

Also in the suit, the group claims the Brown Act open-meeting law was violated when Mayor Kristina Lawson reopened the public hearing at the June 17 council meeting after the decision on the project was continued from the June 3 meeting. Elster says people may have shown up at the second meeting if they knew they would have had a chance to speak.

Mattas sees no merit in that argument and said the city complied with the Brown Act.

Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617.