Sometime this week or next, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to sign a bill allowing construction of a new, privately financed professional football stadium in the east San Gabriel Valley's City of Industry.
The measure, which easily cleared the Assembly and survived lengthy negotiations in the state Senate, exempts the project from certain provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act, and some already are arguing that it sets a precedent for relaxing environmental standards in favor of jobs and development. This does, after all, mark the first time that the Legislature has intervened on behalf of a project while a lawsuit invoking this fundamental statute was pending, and it inevitably raises the question of whether lawmakers now regard the act, the foundation of the state's environmental protection, as waivable at their discretion.
Still, as the Senate's president pro tem, Sacramento Democrat Darrell Steinberg, told The Times following his chamber's 21-14 vote, "If anybody thinks this is a precedent that allows them to ignore California's environmental laws, it isn't."
Not everyone has gotten the word. "It's unfortunate that the Legislature had to go this route," said L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who supports the stadium but worries about what comes next. "Now other big projects will be looking to the Legislature to grant CEQA exemptions."
Just to prove her point, Tony Bell, a spokesman for Supervisor Mike Antonovich, said his boss doesn't think that would be a bad thing, citing the Gold Line light-rail extension as a project that ought to receive a pass. "The Legislature shouldn't discriminate in favor of an NFL stadium," he said. "There should be equity in priorities."
Actually, the politics at work here may be more local than environmental. Molina's reservations, for example, may have something to do with the fact that one of the stadium's major supporters has been state Sen. Gloria Romero, who represents Industry. There's bad blood between Molina and Romero over a range of issues, including who deserves credit for big-ticket projects -- which the $800-million, 75,000-seat stadium and accompanying office and retail complex certainly is. Similarly, Antonovich will be fighting for funding to extend the Gold Line east from Pasadena at this week's MTA board meeting. The question of equitably allocating transit money between Eastside and Westside projects is a fraught one, but none of the Gold Line's impediments are environmental.
But what about the merits of objections raised by more disinterested parties, such as state Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), who told The Times that the exemption has "mortally wounded" California's environmental laws?
That needn't be true, because of the singularity of this case. Billionaire developer Ed Roski Jr. has situated the stadium in a city incorporated as a home for industrial commerce. Before he proposed the project, the 600 acres involved were to be used for a warehouse complex with 24-hour-a-day diesel traffic. In its place, his Majestic Realty intends to build the National Football League's first certified LEED stadium -- a structure that meets standards set by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system. That facility already has completed two separate environmental impact reports. Moreover, had the pending litigation -- which was brought by just eight homeowners from adjacent Walnut -- prevailed, Majestic would have been forced to dome the stadium, pushing up the environmental impact of construction and exponentially increasing its ultimate carbon footprint.
Equally important, L.A. County has a jobs crisis that is creating widespread misery. This project will hire 12,000 construction workers and, when finished, employ more than 6,000 permanent workers -- all earning union wages with union benefits.
In other words, this is a project that not only has complied with the letter and spirit of the Environmental Quality Act but promises a greener outcome than anything else on the table. And it directly addresses our area's most pressing social and economic need -- jobs.
That's why Steinberg said he felt impelled to intervene and why he worked so hard to avoid a vote that could be cited as precedent -- even when it isn't. "This sort of thing should be the rarest of the rare," he said. "That's why I did everything I could to keep it from coming to a vote."
After initially delaying consideration of the exemption, Steinberg brought in former state Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp to mediate between Majestic and the city of Walnut. (If Van de Kamp can't nudge you toward agreement, you don't want to agree.)
When Van de Kamp couldn't get the eight holdout homeowners to withdraw their suit, Steinberg personally intervened. In the end, he said, it became clear there'd be no resolution, so he reluctantly called for a vote, and the exemption was granted.
"I do understand the concerns of the environmentalists," he said, "but in this imperfect process, you sometimes have to balance conflicting but worthy objectives and two positions that do have merit. That's why, particularly now, these deliberations have to proceed on a case-by-case basis."
Unemployed construction workers, who began applying for spots on the stadium project at one of the job fairs held last weekend, surely would agree.