Steinberg shelves main environmental measure to aid arena effort

Following last-minute negotiations with the governor, state Sen. President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg shelved his main environmental reform bill Wednesday night, and instead pushed forward with a bulked-up alternative bill – one that includes provisions to assist in development of Sacramento’s downtown arena.

Steinberg announced he was setting SB 731 – his major California Environmental Quality Act overhaul bill – aside after talking with the governor Wednesday night. In doing so, he added two key statewide CEQA changes to SB 743, a newer bill, which had been more focused on streamlining the Sacramento arena project. The fine points of those amendments were still being negotiated after session Wednesday.

SB 743 seeks to speed the judicial process for handling environmental lawsuits, limit the courts’ ability to stop construction and add mediation to the mix. Steinberg said he would add a provision at the governor’s request that gives the governor’s Office of Planning and Research the go-ahead to develop a new way of measuring traffic impacts of major projects, based on total “vehicle miles traveled” rather than intersection congestion. He also said he’s adding a section that reduced the need to do environmental studies for certain commercial mixed-use projects near transit, if those projects are part of a “specific plan area.”

Steinberg representatives said the last-minute move, a day before the end of the legislative session, will strengthen Steinberg’s efforts to help the Sacramento arena and will allow for some CEQA changes this year.

Several Assembly committee members and members of the public expressed dismay at the last-minute nature of the changes.

Representatives of the California Judicial Council notably criticized SB 743, saying the bill places too tight a timeline on courts for resolving lawsuits involving large projects, notably the proposed arena in Downtown Plaza. In a letter, the council said it “undermines equal access to justice.”

“SB 743’s expedited judicial review for all the potential projects covered by the bill will likely have an adverse impact on other cases,” the council said in its letter. “This means that other cases ... such as juvenile cases, criminal cases, and civil cases ... will take longer to decide.”

In arguing for his bill, Steinberg said Sacramento and California are in a battle to keep the Kings against out-of-state poachers. He cited the recent effort by businessman Chris Hansen to secretly fund a local petition drive to put the arena issue to public vote. Hansen had tried this year to buy the Kings and move them to Seattle. Hansen was fined this week by the state Fair Political Practices Commission for his action.

“If you don’t think there is an ongoing threat,” Steinberg told Assembly committee members, “read the FPPC announcement. This is a fight. We need this legislation in order to win it.”

Steinberg had previously agreed to a series of other amendments to his bill Tuesday, most of which place requirements on the Kings and the city of Sacramento to assure bus and light-rail service is bolstered at the arena events, and that, overall, arena attendees drive fewer miles to and from events at the downtown facility than they do currently at the Natomas arena.

The amendments also stipulate that the new $448 million arena achieve the LEED Gold standard for energy efficiency within one year of its opening. The expected opening date is fall 2016.

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