CERES — A group that is embroiled in litigation with the city and Wal-Mart over its planned supercenter has filed a lawsuit over a pair of recently installed stop signs.
The group Citizens for Ceres asserts that the city violated the California Environmental Quality Act when it used an exemption in the law to skip conducting a study before installing the stop signs at Fowler Road and Lunar Drive.
Contrary to staff recommendations, the City Council voted in April to create the three-way stop at the intersection.
City Engineer Toby Wells said traffic there was studied after residents in the area expressed concern about drivers exceeding the 25-mph speed limit on Fowler. Taking into consideration the speed of 85 percent of the drivers and the volume of traffic through the intersection, federal guidelines suggest the stop signs would not be justified.
A staff report agreed with those suggestions and recommended against installation. However, Wells said, the guidelines are only suggestions, not mandates.
The majority of the council voted counter to those suggestions, 4-1, with Mayor Chris Vierra dissenting, and the stop signs were installed in May.
The council expressed the need for traffic-calming measures, and speed bumps quickly were ruled out as an option because Fowler is a main emergency route for firefighters stationed about five blocks to the west of the intersection.
In April, representatives from Citizens for Ceres had the first of several meetings with city staff about the new stop signs.
Group spokeswoman Sherri Jacobson said she and several other members live in the immediate vicinity of the new stop signs. They believe the signs are creating new safety concerns because people aren't making complete stops.
Furthermore, she said, "this new three-way stop will have noise, traffic and safety impacts, which have not been evaluated or mitigated by the city as required by state law."
Jacobson said she explained this during several meetings with staff and requested that radar speed signs be installed instead, but the city declined.
Citizens for Ceres filed the lawsuit in Stanislaus Superior Court on Friday; it claims that the city violated CEQA by forgoing the environmental study and that the exemption shouldn't apply in this case. The lawsuit doesn't seek damages but instead asks the court to invalidate the project approval.
Wells said the stop signs were exempt from CEQA because they are installed on a roadway that is considered an "existing facility."
He said the city uses the "existing facility" exemption in the majority of roadwork projects, from speed bumps to crosswalk striping.
"The stop signs didn't change the functionality of the roadway, they didn't widen or narrow it," Wells said. "If the exemption doesn't apply to these types of activity, where does it stop?"
He said a CEQA review for something as simple as the installation of a stop sign would take about three months and result in costs for staff and consultants.
The lawsuit must be paid for by the general fund and likely will cost tens of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money, according to acting City Manager Art de Werk.
"That stop sign appears to me to have made that area of our community safer to motorists, children, everybody else," de Werk said. "This lawsuit will incur costs to the city, which I think is an unfortunate outcome for the people who only sought to have a safe traffic environment in their neighborhood."
Jacobson and other members of Citizens for Ceres are paying Stockton-based attorney Brett Jolley to bring the action against the city, she said.
Jolley also is representing the group of about 90 residents in its lawsuit against Ceres and Wal-Mart, which also alleges CEQA violations for the proposed 300,000- square-foot Mitchell Ranch Center anchored by Wal-Mart and approved by the city council in 2011.
Jacobson declined to say how much has been spent on the lawsuit to date.
Bee staff writer Erin Tracy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2366.