Judge finds flaw in Sacramento’s arena review, but construction will continue

Demolition work continues last month at Downtown Plaza to make room for Sacramento’s new arena.
Demolition work continues last month at Downtown Plaza to make room for Sacramento’s new arena.

From postgame riots to massive traffic jams, opponents argued that the new Sacramento Kings arena would cause a multitude of environmental woes in the central city.

A judge threw out most of those arguments Thursday.

In a tentative ruling, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley largely dismissed claims brought against the $477 million project in a pair of lawsuits under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. Frawley did identify a flaw in the city’s pre-construction environmental review, a defect relating to potential traffic problems, but city officials said the flaw was relatively minor and wouldn’t interrupt construction.

Project opponents agreed that construction, which began two months ago, won’t be affected.

“It doesn’t stop the project,” said Donald Mooney, a lawyer for the Sacramento Coalition for Shared Prosperity, one of two groups that sued the city under CEQA.

James Sanchez, the city attorney, said, “We are very pleased with the tentative ruling.” As for the flaws cited by the judge, “we will be able to satisfy the court,” he added.

The Kings declined comment through spokesman Lorenzo Butler.

Frawley will hold a hearing on the case today.

In a 17-page ruling, Frawley turned aside most of the arguments made by the Sacramento Coalition and the second group, a dozen citizens led by retired Caltrans director Adriana Saltonstall.

But Frawley said the city, in its voluminous environmental impact report, mishandled the issue of potential traffic problems that would occur when the new arena opens at Downtown Plaza in October 2016. He said the city’s traffic-mitigation plan is missing “specific performance standards” to determine whether the plan will work to contain traffic problems.

The judge said it looks like the failure to include those criteria was “the result of inadvertent error,” but he said it must be corrected nevertheless.

Jeff Heeren, a deputy city attorney, said the performance standards are actually included in the review, but are in a different section. Even if the judge orders the report to be fixed, he said he doesn’t think it will have to be approved again by a vote of the City Council. The council originally approved the report May 20, the same day it OK’d a development agreement with the Kings and a $255 million public subsidy for the project.

Frawley also said he is willing to hear arguments from project opponents on whether “additional traffic impacts” would occur on nights when attendance at the downtown arena surpasses the building’s 17,500-seat capacity. That could occur when standing-room-only crowds show up for games or other events, or when people attend outdoor programs on the plaza area outside the arena.

Lawyers for the city and the Kings had argued that the plaintiffs were not truly interested in the environment but were more focused on pushing different agendas. The Coalition for Shared Prosperity was trying to force the Kings to invest $40 million in affordable housing around the arena site, while the Saltonstall group was irate over the City Council’s decision to contribute a $255 million subsidy to the project.

Frawley ruled that the affordable-housing issue had nothing to do with CEQA. He similarly dismissed the Saltonstall group’s claims that Kings fans would engage in postgame rioting in the downtown streets. He tossed aside other claims as well, including arguments that the arena would overwhelm the nearby Old Sacramento historic district.

The two CEQA lawsuits never appeared to be serious threats to the arena, especially after Frawley turned down project opponents’ request in late July for an injunction that would have blocked construction. SB 743, a law crafted for the Kings arena by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, made it much harder to get an injunction under CEQA. The judge would have had to find that the project would pose an “imminent threat to the public health and safety,” among other things, in order to shut construction down.

“Getting an injunction with the Steinberg law is a very high hurdle,” Mooney said.

The Saltonstall group is appealing Frawley’s ruling on the injunction. In the appeal, the group is also challenging the constitutionality of the Steinberg bill.

Even though construction has continued without pause, the CEQA lawsuits were part of a legal cloud hanging over the arena plan. City officials have said the CEQA litigation and other lawsuits have prevented them from issuing bonds required for the bulk of the city’s $255 million share of the project. The financing could end up costing more if interest rates shoot up before the city is finally able to issue bonds.

Two other lawsuits are still pending. One case challenges the legality of the city’s subsidy. In the other case, the city and the owners of a building at the southeast corner of Downtown Plaza are wrestling over the price to be paid for the property. That case probably won’t be resolved for months even though the building, which housed the old Macy’s men’s store, was torn down after it was turned over to the Kings through eminent domain proceedings.

Call The Bee’s Dale Kasler, (916) 321-1066. Follow him on Twitter @dakasler.