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California special exemption for NFL stadium plan not so special

When the Legislature in 2009 exempted a planned football site in the City of Industry from California environmental laws, the public was assured it would be just the one time. Now it's done it twice to help AEG's downtown L.A. proposal move forward.

September 13, 2011|Michael Hiltzik
  • Two bills awaiting the governor's signature require that environmental lawsuits against the projects brought under the California Environmental Quality Act start in the state Court of Appeal, rather than in Superior Court. Above, an artist's rendering of AEG's proposed NFL stadium for downtown L.A.
Two bills awaiting the governor's signature require that environmental… (AEG )

Back in 2009, the California Legislature enacted a special exemption from state environmental laws for billionaire developer Ed Roski's proposed NFL stadium in the City of Industry.

Just this once, we were assured. Special case. "Rarest of the rare," Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) called the occasion. No way the waiver would be a precedent for other big projects, he said.

Did you believe that? Me neither.

So no one has a right to be surprised that just last week the Legislature granted another environmental exemption, this time for Anschutz Entertainment Group's proposed NFL stadium downtown.

And on the reasoning that what's good for the AEG goose is good for the entire development business gaggle, the Legislature promptly passed yet another environmental exemption, this time a gift so open-ended that no one has any idea how many big construction projects will be shaded beneath its capacious boughs. Both bills are currently on Gov. Jerry Brown's desk.

"You didn't have to wait very long to see the domino effect" of the AEG bill, Bruce Reznik, executive director of the Sacramento-based Planning and Conservation League, told me. "It happened in 24 hours."

The supporters of the two bills passed last week — hastily, in the final hours of the legislative session — have tried to downplay their impact. They say the bills don't grant outright exemptions to the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, like Roski got.

They just require that environmental lawsuits against the projects brought under CEQA start in the state Court of Appeal, rather than in Superior Court. Oh, and they limit the time the court can consider those lawsuits before rendering judgment to 175 days.

The AEG stadium and any projects designated under the second bill would still have to meet CEQA requirements for environmental impact reports. And it's not like there's no judicial review at all — in fact, most lawsuits under CEQA end up before the Court of Appeal sooner or later anyway. So it's not like CEQA has been undermined.

I have one word of response to that: Baloney.

AEG and its chief executive, Tim Leiweke, contend that AEG needed a break to move the downtown stadium project forward. Specifically, it required "protection from frivolous lawsuits from those who are trying to get a competitive advantage or those who are just trying to destroy the process," as Leiweke told The Times last month.

For those of you unfamiliar with the land developer's dictionary, a "frivolous lawsuit" is defined as pretty much any lawsuit.

The palmed card in this deck is that court review of a big project's environmental impact statement doesn't "destroy the process," as Leiweke would have it; it's an essential part of the process. And eliminating the lowest rung of court review isn't an innocuous change.

It increases the expense and complexity of legal challenges to big projects. That might not dissuade well-funded and high-profile environmental groups from going to court, but it may lock out the community groups and local organizations that operate on a shoestring and whose members feel the negative effects of big projects earliest and most severely.

"Smaller groups already have a very hard time getting to the courthouse doors, let alone getting through them," says Doug Carstens, a leading environmental attorney in Santa Monica.

Carstens observes that even though the downtown stadium's builders still have to prepare an environmental impact report, such reports are hardly the last word. And when the project under review is a mega-development such as the stadium with its vast potential for snarling traffic and filling the night sky with blazing billboards, community oversight is more, not less, important.

"Let's say the EIR for the stadium is defective," Carstens says. "Say it leaves out traffic impacts, is obviously in error and incomplete. If you are a person in the community who needs to bring one of these cases — we're talking about people who see their children growing up with asthma — you won't be able to do that with AEG, because the bar has been raised."

Supporters and critics of the bills agree that they may have some virtuous aspects. For example, the AEG bill commits the company to an environmental standard of construction, including "best in the nation" traffic mitigation, more firmly than earlier versions of the measure.

That's a real gain, argues David Pettit of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which negotiated the final version. "It was our assumption that some form of this would pass whether we liked it or not," Pettit says. "So we made the decision to be at the table rather than just say no. At the end of the day, we got what we wanted."

There's also some agreement that CEQA procedures could benefit from streamlining. Though if the latter is the case, why achieve the streamlining by steamrollering an unread bill through the Legislature minutes before adjournment?

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