Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa poses with Magic Johnson following… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
Reporting from Sacramento — Developer Philip Anschutz's plan to build an NFL stadium in Los Angeles may now hinge on whether state lawmakers will allow him to bypass some environmental rules so the 64,000-seat project can quickly get underway.
As top executives from Anschutz's firm roamed the Capitol to lobby for their project this week and a who's who of power brokers in sports, business, labor and politics announced their backing for it in Los Angeles, dozens of activist groups were mobilizing against the billionaire builder, pressing legislators not to exempt AEG from provisions of the state's environmental quality act.
The development received endorsements Tuesday from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, former basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson and a host of others. Villaraigosa said the stadium plan is about jobs and "revitalizing the city center."
Anschutz has not said publicly what he wants legislators to do for him. But comments by company officials and lawmakers suggest his firm wants immunity from lawsuits that could hold up a project like his for years. Lawmakers in 2009 gave such immunity to Ed Roski Jr., developer of a rival stadium project in the City of Industry.
"We don't think there should be a separate legal system for rich people in California," said David Pettit, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which along with the Sierra Club and other organizations is fighting an exemption.
This week, AEG President Tim Leiweke was in Sacramento outlining plans for the stadium to Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles), who represents the downtown area where AEG would build.
Leiweke briefed Pérez on a $700-million naming-rights deal that AEG has reached with Farmers Insurance, which company officials believe will help them complete a stadium in time for the 2015 NFL season.
Pérez said he offered Leiweke support for his project without committing to specific legislation. "I'm very excited by any idea that could bring tens of thousands of jobs to L.A.," Pérez said. No environmental exemption was discussed during that meeting, Pérez's office said.
The speaker declined to say whether he would back an exception for AEG like the one the Legislature gave Roski. Pérez voted for the unusual waiver, which exempted Roski's company, Majestic Realty, from legal challenges filed under the decades-old California Environmental Quality Act.
Some lawmakers say it would be fair to grant AEG the same favor. State Sen. Tony Strickland (R-Moorpark), vice chairman of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee, has offered to push for it.
"If you are going to give it to one, why not give it to the other?" Strickland said. "I told them they can call on me. I'm going to do whatever I can."
Others say an exemption for AEG would weaken the law and lead to more exceptions on big developments that could significantly affect the environment.
"It was wrong the first time, and it would be wrong a second time," said state Sen. Joe Simitian of Palo Alto, chairman of the environmental quality committee.
State Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) has met with AEG officials, but he won't take a position until it's clear how local officials regard the waiver issue and he sees the legislation, said his spokesman, Nathan Barankin.
Opponents of a waiver understand the political clout that Anschutz has in the Capitol. His firm and his employees have contributed more than $3 million to political campaigns in California in the last decade. Thousands of those dollars have gone to Gov. Jerry Brown, Steinberg and Pérez.
"It would be a significant fight," said Pettit of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Leiweke says AEG wants only what the Legislature gave Roski.
"We are hoping that the city and the state cooperate with us on CEQA protection that is exactly the same that was provided to the City of Industry, simply because we do not want unwarranted lawsuits," Leiweke told a Los Angeles City Council committee two weeks ago.
He has assured elected officials that AEG will comply with key requirements of the environmental law by conducting and making public an environmental impact study, complete with plans for reducing the impact of traffic, noise, air pollution and other problems.
Roski did an environmental study for his proposal, but the project was bogged down in court when area residents filed lawsuits alleging that the review was inadequate. The Legislature then allowed the project to go forward by exempting it from the legal challenges.
Pérez said consideration of any waiver for Anschutz would have to be a balancing act. The Legislature should "do whatever we can to encourage business development in the state," Pérez said, while maintaining "a strong commitment to protect our environmental standards."
Environmentalists say the law should stand as written, to guarantee that residents can participate in making sure that major developments in their neighborhoods do not create avoidable environmental problems.
"It shouldn't be up to the state Legislature to decide how land is used at the local level," said Bill Magavern, California director of the Sierra Club. "It's a very bad idea."
Times staff writer Jessica Garrison contributed to this report.