Oregon high court hears Walmart case arguments as part of educational tour

MEDFORD — Dressed in choir robes bearing North Medford High School's Tornado mascot, Oregon Supreme Court justices heard oral arguments Tuesday in a six-year-old case in which a citizens group is challenging a city of Medford decision to allow construction of a Walmart Supercenter store on South Pacific Highway.

No decisions were made in the case, and it's unclear when an opinion will be issued.

Tuesday marked the first time in 20 years the state's highest court held hearings in Medford and the first time in 10 years the court has agreed to hear a case on land use.

Petitioners Ivend Holen and Medford Citizens for Responsible Development are contesting a Court of Appeals ruling that the city's decision to permit Walmart to build without a comprehensive traffic impact study did not violate the city's land development code.

The appeals court overturned a decision by the Land Use Board of Appeals, which concluded that under city ordinances Walmart should have been required to complete the comprehensive study.

The Supreme Court wanted to answer the question of whether LUBA must defer to a local government's interpretation of its own land-use regulations and whether the land board must defer to interpretations that show the local government is inconsistent with the code provisions.

Ken Helm, the attorney for Medford Citizens for Responsible Development, argued that the city cherry-picked its land development code to allow the development, ignoring a part that states a comprehensive traffic study is required for development.

Justice Rives Kistler asked whether there should be a dispute if there were two plausible interpretations of the city's code, and the city simply chose one of them.

"This is not just a competition between two plausible readings of the code," Helm replied, arguing that the city's interpretation was in contrast to the code.

Medford City Attorney John Huttl said the city has a few codes that apply to development, and some codes clarify and trump others.

He said the city was justified within the law to interpret its code the way it did. Its code also gives the city discretion to require a comprehensive traffic study, if it believes a development will generate significant traffic, Huttl told the court.

Justice Thomas Balmer said he was inclined to agree with the city unless Helm could point to something in the city's interpretation that explicitly contradicts the city code.

Helm argued part of the city code says that development is not permitted unless the developer conducts a traffic impact study and submits to site review.

Justice Martha Walters said that from her understanding, the word "development" was a defined term and asked whether, then, it wasn't subject to that particular code.

"But 'development' could be applied in a way that could define 13 different types of action," Huttl said, suggesting that it would not be reasonable that all 13 actions could be subject to a traffic impact study.

Six of the court's seven judges were present at the hearing. Justice Robert D. Durham was absent but will listen to a recording of the arguments at a later date and vote on it.

The justices took questions from the audience after the Walmart case. The questions and answers and the court's tour of the state are part of an effort to educate the public about how the court works.

One man from the audience asked how much weight the justices give past opinions when they make their decision.

Walters said the court must adhere to U.S. Supreme Court decisions and its own decisions. All other kinds of court decisions may be taken into consideration. Occasionally, the state Supreme Court will overturn its own decisions.

After questions and a short recess, the court heard a criminal case out of Umatilla County.

The court convenes again at 9 a.m. today at Ashland High School, 201 S. Mountain Ave., Ashland, to hear three criminal cases out of Lane and Marion counties.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.

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