Calif. appeals court reverses ruling on city's approval of warehouse

Jessica M. Karmasek Sep. 19, 2012, 12:00pm


FRESNO, Calif. (Legal Newsline) - California's Fifth District Court of Appeals, in a ruling Monday, reinstated a lawsuit over the approval of a 500,000-square-foot warehouse in Visalia.

The distribution center for VWR International, a global laboratory and chemical supply company, is expected to open this fall with at least 100 workers, according to The Fresno Bee. The warehouse, itself, has been in the works for two years.

On Monday, the Fresno appeals court reversed a 2011 Tulare County Superior Court decision, which said the plaintiffs in the case -- the Coalition for Clean Air, Teamsters Joint Council 7, the Association of Irritated Residents, the Center for Environmental Health and the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment -- lacked legal standing.

In its ruling, the appeals court said the plaintiffs have a right to make sure the city of Visalia follows the law.

In their suit, filed against VWR and Visalia in December 2010, the plaintiffs argued that the city "fast-tracked" the new facility despite efforts by environmental and legal experts to convince it to conduct a full environmental impact review under the California Environmental Quality Act before moving forward.

In particular, residents and workers expressed concern about the impact the truck trips and the transport of hazardous chemicals would have on traffic, air quality and public health in the region.

The Teamsters, who have more than 700 members and two offices in Visalia and have represented employees at VWR in Brisbane for more than 50 years, also claimed VWR was "union-busting."

VWR told its employees in 2010 they were shuttering the Brisbane plant and moving the facility to Visalia.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris joined in the suit, filing an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs' appeal to the Fifth District Court of Appeals.

In particular, the appeals court found that VWR did not obtain a required Planned Development Permit, or PDP, as required under the Visalia Municipal Code prior to the city issuing any building permits.

The court also determined that Visalia's Notice of Exemption, or NOE, under CEQA was null and void because it was filed before the project was approved.

Finally, the court ruled that the city may have illegally provided VWR with $1.5 million in taxpayer money for "site-related improvements" in violation of its own municipal code.

Richard Drury, the plaintiffs' attorney, said in a statement Tuesday that, in layman's terms, the court basically found that the city "bent every law" to fast-track the warehouse -- the Clean Air Act, CEQA and its own municipal code.

"In a region with record air pollution, VWR seems to care about clean air about as much as they care about their employees -- which is not much at all," Rome A. Aloise, president of Teamsters Joint Council 7, said in a statement.

"We had to put VWR and their big clients, such as the University of California, on notice that the law cannot be ignored."

Elizabeth Jonasson of the Coalition for Clean Air's Fresno office said Tuesday the victory goes to "clean air" and "protecting public health."

"The city of Visalia should have never approved this project without considering the environmental and public health problems it would cause," she said.

"This court ruling sends an important message to California cities and counties -- don't take shortcuts around the legal process."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at

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