Business & Real Estate

Decision looms in environmental challenges to Kings arena project

With construction underway on the new Sacramento Kings arena, two lawsuits challenging the project on environmental grounds are about to be decided, perhaps as early as Thursday.

A Sacramento Superior Court judge will hold a combined trial in the two cases Friday, and might provide a preliminary sense of his leanings ahead of time. A tentative ruling could be issued Thursday.

Two groups protesting the $477 million project both filed suit under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, although their goals and outlooks are substantially different. One group, led by retired Caltrans director Adriana Saltonstall, is trying to halt the project outright, outraged by the City Council’s decision in late May to contribute a $255 million subsidy. A second group, the Sacramento Coalition for Shared Prosperity, appears more interested in getting the Kings to commit to spending $40 million on affordable housing in the vicinity of Downtown Plaza, site of the new arena.

Either way, the two groups say the city violated CEQA by ignoring serious environmental problems they say the arena will cause. The affordable-housing group says the project could create traffic jams and air pollution. The Saltonstall group, in a court filing earlier this week, reiterated earlier claims that post-game crowds could raise havoc in the downtown streets.

“Sports hooligans riot,” the Saltonstall group wrote, citing such examples as the rioting in Los Angeles in 2010 after the Lakers won the NBA title.

The Kings and the city, in a court filing two weeks ago, say speculation about post-game riots is little more than “fear-mongering” and isn’t a subject for a CEQA case. Likewise, the availability of affordable housing “is an economic or social issue, not a CEQA impact,” they argue.

The city and the Kings say the project’s opponents are trying to use CEQA to wage battles that have nothing to do with the environment.

“The city made a policy decision,” lawyers for the city and the Kings wrote. “Regardless of whether (the two groups) liked the outcome, it is not the role of this court to second-guess the city’s policy decisions.” They said the yearlong environmental impact study met CEQA standards.

So far, construction has proceeded without interruption since the first barricades went up two months ago. The Saltonstall group failed in its attempt to get a court injunction that would have stopped construction. It is appealing that ruling, and a hearing is set Nov. 4 in the 3rd District Court of Appeal. The Saltonstall group is also attacking the constitutionality of SB 743, a year-old law designed specifically for the arena project that made it considerably harder to get an injunction.

It isn’t clear what would happen to the appeal if Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley rules this week in favor of the city and the Kings and rejects the lawsuits.

In the meantime, much of the arena site, on the eastern half of Downtown Plaza, has been leveled. The project is expected to begin “going vertical” in a few weeks, the Kings say, and the arena is scheduled to open in time for the 2016-17 NBA season.

Even if Frawley dismisses the CEQA lawsuits, other legal issues remain. Three Sacramentans are pressing a lawsuit that directly challenges the city’s $255 million subsidy. And the city is still fighting an eminent domain lawsuit over the price to be paid to the owners of the old Macy’s men’s store at Downtown Plaza. The building, at the southeast corner of the mall, has been torn down.