Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat

The Sonora City Council acted within the law in October 2010 when it waived any requirement for Walmart or the city to conduct an environmental impact report on the mega-retailer's expansion plans, California's highest court said.

The state Supreme Court decision released Thursday overturns a November 2012 ruling by the Fifth District Court of Appeal, which sided with the plaintiff, the Tuolumne Jobs and Small Business Alliance. The alliance argued an environmental impact report - a costly and time-consuming study of a project's environmental, cultural or economic impacts - was required.

However, speaking for the court, Justice Carol Ann Corrigan wrote that voter initiatives can be used in lieu of environmental reports, and that California law allows local governments to directly adopt such initiatives rather than hold an election.

"CEQA review is not required before direct adoption of the initiative, just as it is not required before voters adopt an initiative at an election," the judgement states.

Walmart's expansion plans will now go to the Tuolumne County Superior Court, where the parties will argue over whether the plan is consistent with the city's General Plan, a legal roadmap for housing and commercial development.

Sonora City Administrator Tim Miller called the ruling "huge news."

"It's great news for the city," he said. "It validates the action the City Council took."

The case focused on Walmart's plan to build a grocery section onto the Sanguinetti Road store.

Though the city had started an environmental impact report for the project, Sonora resident James Grinnell gathered signatures for a local initiative in 2010 to exempt the project from the requirement. The initiative, written by Walmart, required 15 percent of about 2,500 registered voters in the city to sign a petition.

Initiatives often end up on ballots for voters to approve or deny, but state election rules also allow the local public body like a city council to adopt the initiative as an ordinance. That's what the Sonora council did in October 2010, which led to the lawsuit filed by the mostly anonymous opposition group Tuolumne Jobs and Small Business Alliance.

The lawsuit asked the court to put the project on hold until an EIR could be completed.

For the complete story, see the Aug. 8 edition of The Union Democrat.