Eight local legislators joined Friday to back a bill to shield Sacramento's downtown arena plan from lengthy litigation that could cause the building to miss a tight, NBA-imposed deadline for opening.
The 11th-hour effort, championed by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, would speed up the judicial process for handling environmental lawsuits, limit the courts' ability to stop construction, and add mediation to the mix.
Steinberg, who promised the league in New York this spring he'd help shepherd the arena project through the state's often lengthy environmental process, said the bill keeps the arena on a fast track to open in 2016.
NBA officials have said they are willing to give Sacramento an extra year, but Commissioner David Stern has warned that the league reserves the right to force the team to move to a new city if the project lags.
"It's a very tight timeline," Steinberg said. "We've gotta go. We can't lose this opportunity."
A Steinberg spokesman said the bill would be introduced early next week. Authors include Sens. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber; Ted Gaines, R-Rocklin; Lois Wolk, D-Davis; and Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton.
"We shouldn't let onerous environmental regulations and frivolous lawsuits get in the way of job creation and infrastructure development," Gaines said in a joint press statement.
If passed, the law would go into effect on Jan. 4, four months before the Downtown Plaza arena's environmental impact report is expected to go to the City Council for approval.
The bill would set specific timeframes for local and appellate courts to resolve potential environmental lawsuits. It also asks the state Supreme Court to decide quickly whether or not it would take up the issue, if petitioned. Although the bill focuses on the Sacramento arena, its judicial timelines would apply to other large projects around the state as well, Steinberg said.
The city would still be required to conduct a full environmental review, with citizen comments, and the Kings and city would be required to mitigate for significant negative environmental impacts, Steinberg said.
"We just want to make sure that while whatever is required by the environmental document is done by the project developers and the city, that the project is not held up by months or years by a lawsuit which lingers for a long time," he said.
Steinberg said it's become clear the project deserves protection against attacks.
"I think what we saw two weeks ago in Sacramento with Chris Hansen secretly donating tens of thousands of dollars to try and take back what the NBA board of governors did and defeat this project, you know. There are real threats out there," he said.
Sacramento attorney James Moose, who handles environmental law cases, said lawsuits filed under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, are valid, but some are filed as a way to kill a project by causing extensive delays.
"It becomes the weapon of choice by people unhappy about land-use decisions," he said. "These can tie projects up a long time, especially if there is an appeal."
Others, however, complain the bill appears designed to reduce public involvement in the arena vetting process. Abigail Okrent, legislative director for the Planning and Conservation League, said she is disappointed in particular that the bill is being introduced at the last minute. The legislative session ends on Sept. 13.
"It shows very little faith in the public process," she said. "The public should be able to have time to review."
Sacramento attorney Patrick Soluri, who has filed two lawsuits challenging the city's arena financing plan, complained the bill gives the politically connected project rights that other projects don't get.
"It's pure politics," he said. "This legislation is sending the message that if your project is being promoted by powerful people, you are going to be able to avoid that (extended CEQA) process."
Okrent and Soluri also were critical of a provision allowing the city to use eminent domain power, prior to completion of the CEQA process, to help the Kings buy the Macy's men's store to make room for the arena.
The Kings and the Macy's building owner have been in negotiations on a sale, but have not come to an agreement.
The Steinberg bill also seeks to limit the ability of judges to stop construction on the arena during litigation, unless its construction "presents an imminent threat to the public health and safety" or unless American Indian artifacts are discovered and would be adversely affected by continued construction.
Legal experts say that could mean, in theory, that an arena might open before the courts decide what environmental mitigations the city and Kings are required to do.
Kings President Chris Granger issued a statement Friday commending Steinberg for his support.
"We have built an extraordinary team and great public-private partnership with city and state leaders," Granger wrote. "We appreciate and support the continued leadership of Pro Tem Steinberg and will continue working with legislative leadership from both parties and both houses to ensure this important project is built on time and on budget."
Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat, described the bill as part of an ongoing effort by his office to amend the 43-year-old CEQA.
The bill is the second authored by Steinberg this year involving CEQA. The initial bill, Senate Bill 731, applies to projects statewide. It has not yet passed the Legislature. The new bill is similar to SB 731, but offers several additional provisions to specifically benefit the Sacramento arena.
Both bills are described as a fix to Assembly Bill 900. An Alameda County judge this year struck down the portion of that law that had sent environmental lawsuits directly to the appellate court level.
The new legislation also sets up voluntary mediation sessions on disputes over the city's environmental impact report findings. Officials say they hope mediation can help resolve disagreements short of a lawsuit.
That provision is not new. It was included several years ago in similar single-project legislation to reduce the likelihood of lawsuits challenging a planned National Football League stadium in Los Angeles.
Call The Bee's Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059. Follow him on Twitter @tonybizjak.