Steinberg arena bill goes to Brown

Five months ago in New York, state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento made a promise to the National Basketball Association and a group of prospective Kings owners: You commit to Sacramento, and I will deliver legislation that smooths the way to a new downtown arena.

Thursday, on the last night of this year’s legislative session, Steinberg kept that promise, thanks to a series of last-minute negotiations and bill changes one local official called a “high-stakes chess match.”

Steinberg’s Senate Bill 743 won overwhelming approval in both houses of the Legislature on Thursday evening and is on its way to the governor’s desk. The vote totals were 55-6 in the Assembly and 32-5 in the Senate.

Steinberg said the bill achieves two of his key goals – one local, the other with statewide ramifications.

The bill will speed the judicial process for handling any environmental lawsuits brought against the planned $448 million arena the city and the Kings plan to build in Downtown Plaza. It also limits the courts’ ability to stop construction of the project if a lawsuit is filed, and bolsters the city’s ability to use eminent domain, if needed, to purchase the Macy’s men’s store downtown to make room for the arena. Macy’s plans to consolidate its downtown retail at the women’s store a block away.

SB 743 also represents Steinberg’s latest effort in a two-year quest to overhaul the venerable but cumbersome 47-year-old California Environmental Quality Act, which has made the state a national leader in environmentally friendly growth but has been used widely by plaintiffs to stall or kill projects, sometimes for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the environment. The legislation contains statewide provisions designed to avoid delays on urban “infill” projects.

The bill’s fate had been uncertain throughout much of the week as Steinberg negotiated with Assembly leaders and the Governor’s Office over a series of last-minute changes, including a requirement that – on a per-person basis – patrons of the new arena drive 15 percent fewer miles to get there than those who go to the Kings’ current home, Sleep Train Arena in Natomas. Steinberg came out of those negotiations Thursday saying he felt confident he had made the necessary moves to win the governor’s approval.

“Sometimes the path is a little tortured, not exactly what you planned, but you also take advantage of the moment,” Steinberg said. “We (combined) a great opportunity for Sacramento with the imperative to modernize the environmental statute statewide.”

Steinberg agreed at the last minute to shelve a statewide CEQA bill of his, SB 731, which had drawn opposition from key quarters. Instead, he placed several of SB 731’s key statewide environmental law reform provisions into his newer SB 743, a bill that had initially focused mainly on the Sacramento arena.

Steinberg, who got a thank-you call Thursday from NBA Commissioner David Stern, said he saw his initial bill was in trouble and felt he could make a case to legislators that California leaders should join Sacramento in taking dramatic steps to help save the Kings from potential 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 Wednesday, “read the FPPC announcement. This is a fight. We need this legislation in order to win it.”

Sacramento Kings President Chris Granger applauded the bill, calling the downtown arena project “a once-in-a-generation project for the Kings and Sacramento.”

Mike McKeever, head of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments regional planning group, said the bill’s dual thrust will encourage more downtown development around the arena by making it easier to build other infill projects with a reduced threat of lawsuits.

The bill, however, received mixed reviews from businesses, environmental groups and labor groups around the state that have engaged in a spirited two-year debate over how to overhaul the CEQA law.

Abigail Okrent, legislative director for the Planning and Conservation League, called it “a terrible bill” that does not protect existing residents from potential relocation, reduces opportunities for public comment on some projects and severely limits judges’ ability to call a halt to the arena or other projects once construction starts.

“It’s not an emergency project,” she said. “It’s a basketball stadium. I know people love basketball, but this is a basketball stadium.”

Carl Guardino, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and a leader of the business-backed coalition CEQA Working Group, expressed disappointment, saying Steinberg had promised “comprehensive and meaningful” overhaul of the CEQA, but delivered little more than a handful of small improvements.

“Is it a net positive? Perhaps,” he said. “But it is so limited ... and so incremental, this is marginal at best.”

Jim Mayer, CEO and president of California Forward, a governmental reform group, put a slightly more positive spin on Steinberg’s effort, saying it is a step in the right direction. “The legislative process is always messy,” Mayer said. “Few people get everything they want.”

James Moose, a Sacramento attorney who represents developers on CEQA matters, said the bill clearly helps ease the way for the arena, if the arena meets “green” standards, but said the bill seems to be mainly of benefit only to projects close to rail stations or major bus routes. “There are a lot of projects out there that aren’t getting a lot of relief. ...What this doesn’t do is much at all for the majority of urban California.”

Steinberg won support from both Democratic and Republican legislators in the initial Assembly vote Thursday, several saying the state needs to move forward in the coming years to build on the changes. The bill in particular seeks to limit opportunities for frivolous lawsuits. Critics have charged that labor unions in particular have filed CEQA lawsuits against projects they consider hostile to labor, including numerous Wal-Mart stores around the state. In 2008, a union group sued to block the proposed redevelopment of the downtown railyard, in a move that was widely seen as an attempt to secure a project labor agreement. The suit was thrown out of court.

One last-minute amendment to Steinberg’s bill removes parking and project aesthetic standards as grounds for lawsuits on urban projects. Another amendment changes the way project traffic impacts are measured, moving away from analyzing congestion at nearby intersections and focusing instead on whether infill projects reduce the need for car usage overall in a metropolitan area. The bill also exempts projects in transit-heavy areas from CEQA lawsuits when the project is inside a larger “specific plan area” that has had an environmental review.

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