Friday, September 2, 2011
Farmers Field looks to avoid litigation
By Arash Markazi
State lawmakers introduced legislation Friday that would expedite legal challenges to Farmers Field, Anschutz Entertainment Group's $1.2 billion proposed football stadium in downtown Los Angeles.
Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez and Senator Alex Padilla, who authored the bill, introduced the legislation one week before the Sept. 9 deadline for action on bills when Sacramento lawmakers will break for recess.
"This bill has the support of legislators from both houses and both parties," Padilla said. "It would pave the way for the most environmentally friendly sports stadium in the country in addition to putting thousands of people to work. The bill is a culmination of many weeks of discussions that will allow a thorough and expeditious judicial review of the Los Angeles Convention Center and events center project upon completion of a full (environmental impact review). There are a number of reasons I am authoring the bill but three most important are jobs, jobs and jobs."
Last week AEG president and CEO Tim Leiweke told a state Senate panel in Los Angeles that plans for the stadium would stop if state lawmakers didn't introduce special legislation that would protect AEG from frivolous lawsuits under the California Environmental Quality Act.
"We've made it very clear that we will not move forward without this," Leiweke said. "We cannot and will not move forward with this project with that uncertainty hanging over our head because the NFL will not commit to Farmers Field with that uncertainty hanging over our head."
The bill, which was still being drafted late Thursday night, would allow legal challenges to the stadium's environmental impact report to be heard immediately in the California Court of Appeal, which would then come to a decision within 175 days. The expedited process would bypass the Superior Court and avoid the protracted litigation AEG has been fearful of.
In exchange, AEG has pledged to build a carbon-neutral stadium with more public transit users than any other stadium in the country and have committed to making Farmers Field one of the only stadiums in the country to have a net zero carbon footprint.
The six-month time period for possible lawsuits is twice as long as what Leiweke initially proposed. The current proposal, however, is thought to be more acceptable to legislators who believe anything less than five months would be unrealistic, considering the project's environmental impact report is expected to exceed 10,000 pages.
Leiweke has continually promised lawmakers AEG would complete the most extensive environmental review in the history of downtown Los Angeles.
A competing stadium proposal in the City of Industry has been "shovel-ready" for two years after developer Ed Roski secured an exemption to the California Environmental Quality Act in 2009. The ruling exempts the Industry project from state environmental laws and protects it from environmental lawsuits. Legislators were roundly criticized for passing the exemption, making it virtually impossible for AEG to secure a similar deal for their stadium proposal.
"We are not asking for an exemption," Leiweke said. "We are going to do a full EIR. It will be the best EIR ever done in downtown Los Angeles and we are halfway through it. We are committed to building the most environmentally friendly stadium ever built."
Although the bill seems to have the support of most legislators in Los Angeles, the real battle will be convincing lawmakers to the north and south, which will not be easy considering the two teams most commonly linked to a move to Los Angeles if the stadium is built are the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders. The San Francisco 49ers, currently trying to secure financing for a new stadium, have also been mentioned.
With the NFL unwilling to expand its 32-team league anytime soon and with San Diego, Oakland and San Francisco playing in the three oldest stadiums in the league, it is highly likely Los Angeles' next NFL team will come from their neighbors to the north or south, which will be on the mind of some lawmakers who don't want to use public funds to finance a stadium in their backyard but also don't want to lose their team to a privately financed stadium in Los Angeles.
"It will not be the legislature who determines what teams comes to Los Angeles," Padilla said. "It will not be the governor, it will not be city hall, it will not be the mayor. Only the NFL owners will determine which team relocates to Los Angeles. The opportunity for us is to present a viable option and one with tremendous economic benefit for consideration to the NFL."
Not only could the bill face opposition from lawmakers in San Diego, Oakland and San Francisco, but the proposed legislation has also been roundly criticized by environmentalists, many of whom are skeptical of the stadium's transportation plans which claim Farmers Field will have the lowest "cars per football game ticket holder" ratio in the country.
"Bringing an NFL stadium and football team to L.A. will create new jobs and boost the local economy, but it cannot be done at the expense of downtown residents and monstrous traffic jams in Los Angeles," said David Pettit, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in a statement. "Members of the California Legislature propose to give AEG special treatment in return for things that AEG would need to do anyway. This weak, last-minute, back-room deal is a missed opportunity for Los Angeles and a dangerous precedent for California. It can and should be fixed."
Pettit offered to work with AEG to bring an NFL team to an environmentally friendly stadium.
"But this current proposal does not deliver on that promise," he concluded.
Roski was able to gain support for his exemption by promising jobs and an NFL team if it was granted, but two years later his 600-acre site in Industry is still empty. But with California's unemployment rate at 12 percent, the second-highest of any state in July, there could be some traction to help a project that developers claim will create 18,000 temporary and permanent living-wage and union jobs.
Leiweke has said AEG would like to break ground on the stadium and convention center expansion by June 1, which would still be possible under the current timetable in the proposed bill if the environmental impact report is completed by January and AEG successfully resolves any legal challenges within six months.
Leiweke said he expects Roski's Majestic Realty group will file or back a lawsuit in an attempt to stop the downtown project. He also claimed John Semcken, vice president at Majestic and its stadium plan's point man, was with lobbyists in Sacramento recently urging legislators not to pass any law that would help Farmers Field avoid litigation.
"They spent the week in Sacramento and I think they did themselves a disservice because almost everyone that came back to us was shocked at how they trashed us," Leiweke said last week.
Semcken didn't deny he was in Sacramento speaking to legislators but said he and Majestic have no plans to file a lawsuit to stop the downtown stadium project.
"In over 70 years Majestic Realty has never sued a competitor and has no plans to sue a business partner," Semcken said. "We are 100 percent committed to returning the NFL to our region and have shown the league and the teams the tremendous economic upside of our project."
Roski, who is the president and chairman of Majestic Realty, helped build Staples Center with Philip Anschutz and also owns a piece of the Lakers and Kings with Anschutz. He has said if AEG gets a team and is in position to build Farmers Field he would not stand in the way.
Padilla and Perez seemed optimistic their bill would get the necessary support it needs from lawmakers next week to allow plans for Farmers Field to move forward.
"This goes above and beyond what is normally a part of an EIR process," said Perez. "This is an unprecedented bill on all marks. It preserves the environmental standards, it strengthens the mitigation and it doesn't limit anybody's ability to avail themselves of the judicial process. It just shortens the timeline so that everybody achieves greater certainty in terms of the outcome."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.