SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) - Not that it matters anymore - since construction has already begun - but a state appeals panel okayed changes made by lawmakers to expedite environmental reviews so the new owners of the Sacramento Kings can get a new arena built before the NBA's 2017 deadline.
In an effort to keep the Kings from moving to Seattle, Sacramento city leaders partnered with the team's new owners to build a new $477 million sports and entertainment complex just blocks from the statehouse.
The National Basketball Association's board of governors agreed to keep the Kings in Sacramento with one condition: the new arena had to be ready by 2017.
To meet that deadline, Sacramento and the team's owners - Sacramento Basketball Holdings - convinced state lawmakers to make changes to the public resources code that expedites the environmental review process mandated by the California Environmental Quality Act for the arena project only.
Adriana Saltonstall and 11 others sued the city to stop the project, challenging the constitutionality of the Legislature's changes as well as the arena's compliance with CEQA requirements. The group asked for an injunction to halt demolition of a shopping mall that occupied the spot where the arena would go, claiming the public would be harmed both by the demolition of the mall and the two years of construction right in the middle of downtown Sacramento.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley refused to block the project, and the bulk of the mall came down last summer.
The arena opponents appealed Frawley's denial on grounds that the Legislature's modification of CEQA deadlines represented an unconstitutional intrusion on the courts' function, since it limits the amount of time arena foes and environmentalists have to seek judicial review of the project.
After dismissing Sacramento's claims that the case is moot since ground has already broken on the project, a panel of the Third Appellate District held that the bill modifying CEQA deadlines for the arena project does not violate the separation of powers principle enshrined in the state constitution.
"Properly viewed, the changes do undermine the ability of the trial or appellate courts to issue injunctive relief," Judge Andrea Hoch wrote for the panel. "Indeed, one subdivision specifically allows the trial court to grant 'relief in an action or proceeding brought pursuant to this section . . . .' Certainly, nothing in the subdivision eliminates or truncates the ability of an appellate court to issue injunctive relief in order to compel compliance with the public resources code. And, perhaps most importantly, the changes do not tell any court how to decide an action brought to challenge construction of the downtown arena. For this reason, the changes do not materially impair the trial or appellate courts from fulfilling their adjudicatory functions."
Hoch acknowledged that the bill changed the standards that courts can use to stop the project, which is typically a balance of the harms to public and project. But the task of setting the balance has always been the Legislature's, the judge added.
Furthermore, the Legislature has the power to completely exempt any project from CEQA review - a move it did not make in this case. So the changes it made to environmental review deadlines did not pose an unconstitutional infringement on the power of the court, Hoch said.
As to the group's argument that the bill imposed impossible timelines on the courts, the panel noted that the Legislature also has the power to order the Judicial Council to adopt court rules to expedite cases - exactly what the bill did for the arena project. And the bill only suggested a 270-day deadline for the courts to handle challenges to the project, it did not mandate a limit, the court said.
The changes made by the Legislature do allow for a court to stop the project over an imminent threat to public health and safety. But the group challenging the project chose to focus on the lack of harm the Kings would suffer if the project were halted rather than a public health or safety concern, the panel said.
"To secure a preliminary injunction, Saltonstall bears the burden of demonstrating an imminent threat to public health and safety or to previously unknown historical or ecological values. Thus, Saltonstall's assertions regarding lack of harm to the respondents are irrelevant to the analysis of whether the trial court erred in denying the motion for a preliminary injunction. Even if we assume for the sake of argument that the city and
Sacramento Basketball Holdings would suffer no financial loss and the NBA would not 'yank' the Sacramento Kings as a result of the delay arising from a stay of construction, lack of harm to respondents does not prove or disprove any of the factors upon which a preliminary injunction may be issued under the bill," Hoch wrote.
The panel concluded by denying Sacramento's request for sanctions on the arena opponents for filing a frivolous appeal that "serves no purpose but to harass the city," since the city did not file the proper paperwork or state an amount sought.
Sacramento plans to open the 17,500-seat, LEED-certified arena by October 2016, along with 1.5 million square feet of retail, commercial, office and residential space.
Before that, however, the city faces another lawsuit claiming that its $255 million subsidy of the project is illegal.
That case heads to trial in April.
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