April 25, 2013

Bill to change environmental review could help Sacramento's Kings arena

Sacramento's proposed downtown arena project could get a boost under major environmental legislation unveiled Wednesday by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

Sacramento's proposed downtown arena project could get a boost under major environmental legislation unveiled Wednesday by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

Steinberg's proposed rewrite of the landmark California Environmental Quality Act, months in the planning, aims to reduce the chance that urban projects like the Downtown Plaza arena will get hit by lawsuits that stall construction.

Steinberg said he sent word Tuesday to the National Basketball Association about his measure, Senate Bill 731, which he says could expedite Sacramento's efforts to build an arena.

"It is right on point with the current debate going on in our community to win this competition to keep the Kings in Sacramento," Steinberg said, "and to have a billion dollars of investment in the hub of our region."

The NBA is weighing whether to allow the Kings franchise to be sold to a Seattle group. League officials said they are studying the strength of each city's proposals for new arenas.

Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat, Gov. Jerry Brown and a coalition of business and government groups have been pushing the idea of amending the 43-year-old CEQA for months, independent of the Kings issue. Advocates for change say the environmental law is important, but that it's cumbersome and easy prey for frivolous lawsuits.

The fact that the bill was unveiled at a critical time for Sacramento's arena efforts was a happy coincidence, Steinberg said.

"Hopefully this message and the work that we're doing will help convince the NBA board of governors that Sacramento has earned, earned, earned, earned, the ability to keep its asset in the capital city," he said.

The bill removes traffic, noise and aesthetics from state environmental review consideration and litigation. Instead, it allows cities and counties to set local standards for traffic and noise mitigation on projects. It also streamlines state environmental review for "clean energy" projects.

Environmental groups have expressed wariness over efforts to overhaul the law. But Steinberg's revised bill was received warmly Wednesday by at least one organization that took a strong stand against earlier attempts.

Planning and Conservation League Executive Director Bruce Reznik said that while the CEQA Works coalition he helps head is still going over the details of the bill, he's "feeling pretty good about where it's heading" based on what he's seen so far.

"I think there's actually quite a bit that we can get behind," he said.

Reznik was especially complimentary of some of the proposed procedural fixes contained in Steinberg's bill, saying they could do "a lot to improve things and modernize" the process for developers while maintaining strong environmental protections.

Business leaders promoting an overhaul said they were hopeful, but less enthusiastic. Carl Guardino, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and one of the leaders of the business-backed coalition CEQA Working Group, said Steinberg's bill was "a step forward in what will inevitably be a long and thorough vetting of the issues and negotiations over final language."

Gary Toebben, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, similarly said the bill has "a long way to go to achieve what can be called meaningful reform."

The bill is scheduled to be heard for the first time next week.

Steinberg's effort comes just weeks after an Alameda Superior Court judge said he plans to strike down portions of an existing state law, AB 900, co-authored in 2011 by Steinberg, which also speeds up legal review in lawsuits involving certain infill projects.

Steinberg said his new bill could be used as a cleanup measure, if the judge's ruling on AB 900 has statewide effects.

"If there is any kind of an issue ... I will use this new bill to clean it up and fix whatever needs to be fixed," Steinberg said.

Notably, Gov. Brown said last week he will not push this year to overhaul the state environmental quality act, although he has said the law needs retooling.

On Wednesday, however, gubernatorial spokesman Evan Westrup said Brown "continues to support reforming CEQA."

The possibility of an arena lawsuit has become a front-burner issue in recent weeks as NBA officials review competing arena proposals from Sacramento and Seattle.

NBA officials have expressed concerns about whether lawsuits in each city could slow or derail arena projects.

Last week, NBA Commissioner David Stern said he would reconvene two committees late this week or early next week for further review of the Kings issue.

NBA officials declined Wednesday to say if a meeting has been set.

Sacramento attorneys Patrick Soluri and Jeffrey Anderson have served the city with notice that they believe an arena financing "term sheet" the city approved last month violates state environmental law.

The city faces questions about traffic impacts, parking issues and the arena's potential impact on public facilities and services.

Call The Bee's Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059. Follow him on Twitter @tonybizjak. The Bee's Dale Kasler and Ryan Lillis contributed to this report.

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