Sacramento Kings arena foes try again in court

With both sides facing tough questions, opponents of the new Sacramento Kings arena made another attempt to disrupt the project in court Monday. It seemed unlikely, no matter how the case turns out, that construction will be brought to a halt.

Justices of the 3rd District Court of Appeal grilled lawyers for the city and arena opponents during a 30-minute hearing on the adequacy of the environmental impact report the city of Sacramento was required to prepare for the $477 million project.

The hearing ended without a ruling.

Justices badgered the lawyer for the city, Shaye Diveley, on what plans the city had developed to deal with expected traffic jams on I-5 once the arena opens in October 2016 at Downtown Plaza. The arena opponents’ lawyer, Kelly Smith, was questioned over his claim that the city failed to consider the idea of building an arena near the Kings’ current home in Natomas.

Because Natomas is in a flood plain, a new arena there wouldn’t be “in the public interest,” Associate Justice George Nicholson told Smith.

Nicholson, however, also questioned how thoroughly the city investigated alternative sites, which is a requirement of the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. He said the city was so intent on building downtown that it persuaded the Legislature to “grease the skids” by passing a law, SB 743, which streamlines court challenges to the project.

Smith’s clients, a dozen citizens led by a retired Caltrans director, contend that the project would expose downtown to traffic, air pollution and even post-game rioting by drunken Kings fans, all in violation of CEQA.

Aside from those environmental concerns, the citizens are plainly angered that the project is getting a $255 million public subsidy approved by the City Council.

Even if the Court of Appeal rules that the city’s environmental report was flawed, Assistant City Attorney Matthew Ruyak said he doesn’t believe construction would be halted. He noted that the appeal court has already dismissed the citizens’ request for an injunction that would have halted the project altogether.

“As a practical matter, it would not stop the project,” Ruyak said in an interview.

Smith said in an interview that he believes it’s doubtful the project would be halted, too.

SB 743, a law written specifically for the Kings project, made it much harder for arena foes to get an injunction blocking construction. The law says a judge would have to find an “imminent threat to the public health and safety,” among other things, to shut down the project.

Nonetheless, the justices had pointed questions for Diveley on Monday about the likelihood of traffic tie-ups on I-5 when the arena opens. “It’s going to clog up,” Nicholson told her. He said the city’s environmental report doesn’t spell out what the city plans to do about the problem.

Diveley said the city has pledged to pay its “fair share” toward any traffic improvements needed to help traffic flow on I-5. Ultimately, it will be up to Caltrans to make the improvements, she said.

“True, traffic’s going to be bad but it will improve in the long run,” she said.

Ruyak said the Kings have agreed to pay the city’s share of freeway improvement costs.

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

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