By Laurel Rosenhall.
It’s become almost a summer tradition in the California Capitol.
As basketball season hits its final buzzer and baseball season gets into full swing, it’s also peak deal-making season for legislators rushing toward their August adjournment. Now is when professional sports teams hoping to build new stadiums staff up with Sacramento lobbyists, typically seeking to speed up construction of their new digs by persuading lawmakers to grant them exceptions from state environmental rules.
Lawmakers are considering two such proposals this summer—one to help the Los Angeles Clippers build an arena in Inglewood, another to help the Oakland A’s construct a stadium in Oakland.
They’re the latest in a long string of legislation to assist professional sports teams. In the last decade, lawmakers passed bills that fast-tracked new venues for the Sacramento Kings, Golden State Warriors and San Francisco 49ers. They also approved bills meant to help build new football stadiums in Los Angeles and San Diego that never came to pass.
The proposals routinely stir up debate over California’s environmental laws and whether to grant special deals for wealthy sports franchises. Making the debate even more poignant now: A lag in home construction has contributed to skyrocketing rents and increasing homelessness. Though lawmakers have taken steps to speed up projects that include homes for low-income residents, they have not granted housing developments the same favored treatment they’ve given sports teams.
“It’s bad to have two systems of law—one for rich people and one for everybody else. And that’s what we’re seeing,” said David Pettit, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that fought a bill last year to waive some environmental rules for a new Clippers arena.
At the heart of the debate is the California Environmental Quality Act, a nearly 50-year-old law that some see as a sacrosanct protection and others as an excuse for lawsuits that drag on so long they doom ambitious projects.
With environmentalists staunchly against loosening its requirements, Democrats who control the Legislature have resisted making sweeping changes to the act. Instead, they’ve approved a series of one-off arrangements to help individual teams by: expanding the use of eminent domain to acquire land, making it harder for courts to delay construction, or limiting the length of time for resolving environmental lawsuits. They even passed a law in 2011 entitling big projects to expedite environmental lawsuits under certain conditions, but teams continue to seek special deals for broader relief.
Lawmakers don’t always approve them. Last year they shot down the Clippers’ request—but it was unusual because moneyed interests were lobbying on both sides. Owners of the Forum, a nearby concert arena, lobbied hard against the Clippers. The dueling interests combined spent more than $1 million lobbying on the bill, and owners of the Forum aired commercials attacking the state senator who carried it. A few months after Forum owners killed the bill, they showered legislators with $45,000 in campaign contributions.
Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove, a Los Angeles Democrat carrying this year’s version of the Clippers bill, said she expects another tense fight. The Clippers want to build their arena about a mile from the Forum, creating competition for big events.
“With so much money on the line,” she said, “I can only suspect that they’re going to pull out the stops to defeat this.”
Opponents of the Clippers arena point out that the team’s proposal would impact much more than construction of the arena alone, which would cover just one-sixth of the land for the entire development project. They say it could allow stores, offices or homes to be built on the site without the normal environmental review—even if an arena is never constructed.
Kamlager-Dove and other supporters of big sports projects cast them as economic boosts to their communities, bringing construction jobs during the building phase and concessions jobs afterward. These benefits can be lost or delayed, they say, by environmental litigation. The Clippers and A’s bills this year would limit the timeline for environmental lawsuits to nine months.
That’s a critical perk for developing a new Oakland A’s stadium with surrounding shops and homes, said Assemblyman Rob Bonta, an Alameda Democrat carrying the bill for his hometown team.
“They can’t allow the project to be delayed forever. They need some certainty,” he said. “This is not something to benefit rich and powerful folks. It’s to benefit a community that needs housing, that needs good jobs.”
The courts have argued that limiting the time to review environmental lawsuits unfairly puts those cases at the top of the heap, denying ordinary Californians equal access to justice.
“A case involving elder abuse or asbestos litigation involving dying plaintiffs would move back in the line. A personal injury action involving a severely brain damaged child, whose parents are simply seeking to get their recovery to take care of that child, would move back in line. And there are not lobbying groups that come to this Legislature to represent those interests,” Dan Pone, a lobbyist for the Judicial Council, said at a hearing earlier this year.
Lawmakers approved the nine-month limit for the Kings and Warriors arenas, but this year rejected applying it challenges over community plans and construction of new housing.
And yet they approved a bill as part of the state budget that would place the nine-month limit on environmental lawsuits over a project close to home: a $1.2 billion re-make of their Capitol offices.
Sen. Steve Glazer of Orinda, who carried the bill to expedite court review of environmental lawsuits over housing that was shot down by fellow Democrats, called out the irony in a hearing this week:
“And now we have here… this expedited process not for billionaires and their stadium projects, but for us, the politicians, and our own building. So where does that help us on our issues of affordable housing, when we’re going to provide that fast-track for us but not for everybody else, except for the wealthiest and the most powerful?”