In an effort to expedite the construction of a new $448-million sports-and-entertainment arena in downtown Sacramento, the California Legislature late last week overwhelmingly passed a bill to prevent potential litigation over environmental concerns.
The bill's passage came on the heels of a project labor agreement (PLA) that was signed between the arena's general contractor, Turner Construction, New York City, and the Sacramento-Sierra Building & Construction Trades Council. The agreement providing the labor to construct the new home for the Sacramento Kings' NBA team has drawn the ire of non-union construction groups.
Authored by Senate pro tempore Darrell Steinberg (D), S.B. 743 includes elements from Steinberg's earlier bill, S.B. 731, which was meant to reform the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for California projects by reducing the risk of groups using environmental litigation to hold up large infrastructure projects to get concessions—what many have termed "greenmail."
However, after negotiations with Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) late last week, Steinberg combined the two bills. Brown is expected to sign S.B. 743 bill into law.
"We were able to merge some very specific and appropriate relief for Sacramento to make sure this project—that is so important, and we’ve worked so hard to earn—is not held up, and, at the same time, we’ve pushed forward significant reform of the CEQA that makes it easier to build more projects like this," Steinberg says. "This project in Sacramento really represents so much more of what we want to do throughout the state of California—it’s on a transit line, it’s in the urban center, it will help revitalize an area of town that needs that catalyst."
The bill would remove parking and aesthetic standards as grounds for legal challenges against project developments in urban infill areas and expand an exemption that previously applied only to residential projects located within transit priority areas in which a full environmental impact review already has been completed.
It also would modernize the statewide measurements against which traffic impacts are assessed and resolved. Specific to the Sacramento arena, the bill would prevent construction from being stopped unless the court finds a danger to public health and safety or impact on Native American archeological grounds. Further, it would allow eminent domain proceedings against specific properties at the arena site to go forward concurrently with the CEQA process.
Not everyone is convinced the bill will benefit projects other than the arena. "The message here is, if you are an owner and want to get your project exempted from CEQA, put a PLA on it, and then you’ll get CEQA reform," says Eric Christen, executive director of Poway, Calif.-based Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction. "But it won’t be broader CEQA reform—it will be just for your project."