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Katy Grimes

Sacto arena bill signed, but it’s not over yet

I hate “I told ya so” moments.

Gov. Jerry Brown just signed SB 743, “easing environmental regulations for developments in California cities, including a new basketball arena in downtown Sacramento,” the Los Angeles Times said.

In March I predicted Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento would jam legislation through exempting the Sacramento Kings new arena plan from the restrictions of the California Environmental Quality Act, in order to meet a dubious deadline imposed by the NBA.

March 30, after Steinberg’s office told me he did not plan on authoring legislation to streamline or bypass the required environmental process for the proposed Sacramento NBA arena, I predicted they weren’t being straight with me.

Steinberg’s office denied any plan to do this. But the reason I wrote the story and asked about this was I knew this was the next step in scamming the public with the publicly subsidized arena.

The need to bypass California’s absurdly strict environmental guidelines and restrictions prevent most large scale projects from ever taking place without legislative intervention. And Sacramento officials shoved the latest iteration of an arena deal through at breakneck speed for a reason.

But even Steinberg couldn’t get his original bill, SB 731 through the committee process. His colleagues weren’t comfortable with Steinberg’s intended claims of reforming the entire CEQA process, when really his bill was just a conduit for the Sacramento arena deal.

SB 731 was shelved and the new conduit became a gut-and-amend bill. SB 743 rose from the ashes like a Phoenix. (Poor choice of words for the Sacramento Kings…)

Steinberg’s latest bill was introduced at the very end the legislative session, without notice, public debate or any real scrutiny by media. Nearly all of the Sacramento local media — radio, television, newspapers and magazines — are backing the arena project, and providing the cheerleading.

Yet Steinberg’s bill is even worse than previous stadium legislation. It also would allow the City of Sacramento greater eminent domain powers to seize the downtown property currently in the way of building the project.

More shameful, is what media claims the bill will do, rather than highlight what abuses of power it will allow, and gifts of public property to the arena developers.

According to the LA Times provisions of SB 743 will (in bold):

–Remove parking and aesthetics standards as grounds for legal challenges against developments in urban infill areas near transit stops.

Among the assets being “gifted” to the arena deal are the city’s parking garages and meters, which currently generate about $9 million a year for the general fund. The city has proposed diverting all of the city parking revenues to pay the arena bond payments. This will blow a $9 million annual hole in the general fund.

City staff assigned zero value to the 3,700 parking garage spaces the city is giving to the developers, nearly 50 percent of all city-owned garage spaces. The garage spots actually have a fair market value of $58 million, based on the city’s own 2012 parking valuation study.

–Modernize the statewide measurements against which traffic impacts are assessed and resolved, allowing developers to offset the impacts by building near mass transit stations.

Not true. Steinberg’s CEQA exemption bill would allow arena construction to go ahead even with existing traffic backups in this part of downtown, and anticipated significant traffic impacts due to the arena. Then taxpayers will be on the hook when Caltrans decides to send a bill of $100 million-plus for freeway improvements — after arena construction is already underway.

–Expand an exemption from CEQA litigation for mixed residential/commercial projects located within transit priority areas where a full environmental impact review has already been completed.

For the Sacramento arena project, the bill prevents certain lawsuits stopping the project unless a judge finds a danger to public health and safety, and allows the government to force the sale of properties through eminent domain concurrently with the environmental review process.

Even if there are violations to the CEQA laws, mitigation doesn’t have to be addressed until the end of the first basketball season with an official NBA team actually playing in the arena.

“This bill sets a terrible precedent by eliminating any realistic chance of halting construction if the arena is approved illegally,” Kevin Bundy, Senior Attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a press statement, in a story I recently wrote. “This is a wink and a nod to public officials that they can ignore California’s most important environmental law with impunity.”

The truth is the City of Sacramento is giving assets to the arena developers, which city officials say have a value of $46 million. However, Eye on Sacramento, a public policy watchdog group, estimated the real value of these assets is at least $139 million, making the total taxpayer subsidy $350 million — not the $257 million as represented by the city.

Another area of substantial discrepancy is between the subsidy numbers provided by the city and EOS’s subsidy calculations.

City staff also assigned zero value to the six digital billboard sites the city is giving away as part of the arena deal. But EOS found the sites are worth $18 million based on values established in a deal the city cut with Clear Channel Outboard just last year.

The remaining discrepancies are due to the city staff’s gross under-valuation of the six land parcels the city is also giving away to the developers. EOS found two of the six parcels to be worth four to six times the values assigned by staff.

Opposition

Because of the lack of public debate about the arena deal, as well as the highly dubious numbers put out by the city over the growing public subsidy, groups are joining efforts to oppose the arena in Sacramento for the Kings pro basketball team unless it is first put before voters for a vote.

A recent poll by the opposition group Sacramento Taxpayers Opposed to Pork found 78 percent of the respondents favor a public vote on taxpayer subsidies for the arena. Yet Steinberg and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA player, have forged ahead as if it’s already a done deal.

And despite the Steinberg fast-tracked legislation now signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, I suspect the effort to put an initiative on the ballot will heat up.

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