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Third District Court of Appeal Upholds Sacramento Kings Stadium EIR

March 12, 2015

On February 18, California’s Third District Court of Appeal published a decision upholding an EIR prepared for the proposed Sacramento Kings basketball stadium in downtown Sacramento. Among other holdings, the decision adds to the ever growing body of Save Tara case law delineating the extent to which an agency can support a project before CEQA review begins.

The decision, Saltonstall et al. v. City of Sacramento, rejected a Save Tara claim that the City of Sacramento impermissibly committed to the project before conducting CEQA review. The court also rejected claims that the EIR (i) failed to consider an alternative that would have remodeled the King’s existing stadium, (ii) did not properly study impacts to Interstate 15, and (iii) did not assess the safety impacts of large crowds outside the stadium. The court also upheld the trial court’s denial of a motion to augment the administrative record.

Whether Sacramento Committed to the Project Before Completing CEQA Review

The court disagreed with the Plaintiffs’ claim that the City of Sacramento had violated CEQA by committing itself to the project before conducting environmental review.

A preliminary term sheet between the developer and the city was not a commitment that foreclosed alternatives or mitigation measures normally considered during CEQA review; it was merely an agreement to negotiate that expressly reserved the city’s discretion to review the project under CEQA, as well as its ability to reject the project altogether.

An agenda for a meeting between the stadium developer and the city that identified a need for an agreed communication strategy did not demonstrate a premature commitment. It had been prepared by a third party consultant, it demonstrated a lack of coordination rather than commitment, and, even if it demonstrated city support and advocacy, the Save Tara decision had held that an agency’s “high esteem” for a project did not demonstrate a commitment.

While the city had exercised eminent domain to acquire a portion of the project site, CEQA Guideline 15004 authorizes agencies to enter into land acquisition agreements before CEQA review if future use of the land is conditioned on CEQA compliance. In addition (and more important), Senate Bill 743 – a law specifically designed to facilitate the King’s stadium project – authorized the city to acquire the same lands by eminent domain prior to completing CEQA review.

Nor did the city’s forgiveness of a $7.5 million loan constitute a premature commitment. The city forgave the loan in exchange for the museum’s relinquishment of rights to a city parking lot. The staff report associated with the loan transaction made no reference to the stadium project and the Plaintiff’s made no showing as to how the loan agreement constituted a commitment of the city. The court therefore deemed the claim forfeited for lack of analysis by the Plaintiffs, and, for good measure, noted again that CEQA Guideline 15004 authorizes land acquisition agreements before CEQA review if future use of the land is conditioned on CEQA compliance.

Range of Alternatives

The EIR did not have to fully analyze potential remodeling of the existing stadium as an alternative. That possibility was comprehended within the range of alternatives fully analyzed in the EIR, which included both a new stadium next to the existing one as well as a no project alternative which would have continued operations at the existing stadium. As explained by the city, remodeling the arena would have many of the same effects as new construction next door, and, like the other alternatives, would fail to meet the core objective of building a new stadium in downtown Sacramento. The court concluded on the same basis that a remodeling alternative would not have added substantially to the alternatives analysis of the EIR and therefore was not required.

Methodology of Freeway Congestion Analysis

The court held that substantial evidence supported the city’s methodology for analyzing the freeway impacts of the project. Caltrans provided no analysis to support the one area where it reached a different conclusion than the EIR, and the substantial evidence of the EIR to the contrary was sufficient for the city to rely on. The city was not required to separately analyze the effects of the project on interstate travelers as well as local commuters, and, besides, the mainline analysis of the EIR accounted for both.

Social Disturbance Caused by a Project

The court rejected the Plaintiffs’ claim that the EIR was deficient because it failed to address potential impacts to safety caused by large crowds. CEQA concerns itself only with physical effects to the environment and the Plaintiffs had failed to show how crowd safety impacts the physical environment.

Motion to Augment the Administrative Record

The Plaintiffs lost their appeal of the trial court’s denial of their motion to augment the administrative record because the issue was not properly before the Court of Appeal. Review of the trial court’s denial must be by petition for writ of mandate, not direct appeal. The Plaintiffs forfeited a second request to augment the record because they made no showing of why the documents should be included. They also failed to address the trial court’s determination that the documents were irrelevant.

Conclusion

The political machinations around the fight to keep the Kings in Sacramento make the decision interesting, but the opinion itself doesn’t really break any new ground. Its precedential role will most likely center on the facts of its Save Tara analysis. Surprisingly, that analysis makes no reference to the highly analogous (and supportive) Cedar Fair decision of 2011. That decision rejected Save Tara claims against an extremely detailed term sheet for the new San Francisco 49ers stadium in Santa Clara. It would be surprising if Sacramento’s lawyers overlooked that decision when they drafted the term sheet for their own stadium.