Retail giant Walmart won a major victory Thursday when an Oregon Supreme Court ruling removed what could be the last major hurdle to building a Supercenter at the south end of the city.
The Supreme Court unanimously overturned an earlier decision by the state Land Use Board of Appeals that required the city to complete a comprehensive traffic study. The city maintained the traffic issue had previously been addressed when the property was rezoned years ago.
"It reinforces what we've been doing," said Mayor Gary Wheeler. "We've been consistent in the application of the rules."
The city has had codes on the books for 20 years that require a traffic study be done when a property is zoned, not when a development is about to be built on the property.
Medford Citizens for Responsible Development, a local group that has led the legal fight against the Supercenter, maintained the traffic from the store would cause problems at intersections in the area that have been recently upgraded to accommodate the new south Medford freeway interchange.
"It's kind of a sad day for our group," said Ivend Holen, a member of the group. "It's been seven years now that we've been fighting this thing."
He said the ruling will be a blow to Medford residents worried about traffic, and it will give developers free rein in the city.
"We thought Medford had a vision, but the vision is, 'Let 'er rip,'" he said.
With the Supreme Court ruling out of the way, Holen said, he sees very little recourse for his group to continue the fight.
"I really, at this point, don't foresee it," he said.
Since 2003, Walmart has sought to build a 176,500-square-foot store adjacent to the Medford Armory, on the former site of the Miles Field baseball park on South Pacific Highway. The company previously has said it would hire 300 people, about 75 percent of whom would be full time.
Greg Hathaway, a Portland attorney representing Walmart, said the decision removes the last major impediment to building the Supercenter.
Hathaway said he didn't have a timeframe for when Walmart might start construction. Earlier information from Walmart indicated construction could start within a year after the traffic study issue was resolved.
Walmart's plans for the Supercenter have already been reviewed by the city, Hathaway said.
The Supreme Court decision could have repercussions throughout the state as well.
Hathaway said the ruling defines the latitude governments have in interpreting their own rules.
"It's about the whole concept of local governments having the ability to interpret their own codes," Hathaway said.
In a June 2009 ruling, the state Land Use Board of Appeals found the city's code failed to account for large-scale development in requiring a traffic study.
The Oregon Court of Appeals ruled in November 2009 that the city of Medford was correct in not requiring a new traffic analysis from Walmart. Opponents, led by Medford Citizens for Responsible Development, appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, saying it would cause congestion.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.