CEQA Review of Sacramento Kings Downtown Arena Project Held Legally Adequate In Published Third District Opinion

by Miller Starr Regalia
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In a published opinion filed February 18, 2015, the Third District Court of Appeal rejected all legal challenges to the City of Sacramento’s EIR and CEQA compliance for approval of its new downtown entertainment and sports center (ESC) which will serve as the Sacramento King’s new home arena. Saltonstall v. City of Sacramento (3d Dist. 2015) ___ Cal.App.4th __, 2015 WL 708608. Key points of the Court’s decision, which affirmed the trial court’s judgment denying the writ sought by project opponents, include:

  • No unlawful pre-commitment to project approval. The City’s steps toward planning the ESC prior to completing CEQA review did not establish unlawful premature commitment to the project. The issue “‘is predominantly one of improper procedure’ … [which is] to be decided by the courts independently [because it]… goes not to the validity at the agency’s factual conclusions but to the required timing of its actions.”” (Quoting Save Tara v. City of West Hollywood (2008) 45 Cal.4th 116, 131, quoting Vineyard Area Citizens for Responsible Growth, Inc. v. City of Rancho Cordova (2007) 40 Cal.4th 412, 435.) The City’s preliminary nonbinding term sheet with Kings ownership group Sacramento Basketball Holdings, LLC was not a binding contract, and it preserved the sole and independent discretion of City, as lead agency, to weigh the impacts of and determine not to proceed with the project. Plaintiffs’ evidence of public relations coordination, even if it showed “favor of and advocacy for” the preferred downtown site, did not evidence premature commitment. Nor did the City’s exercise of eminent domain to acquire the downtown site, since CEQA “provides an exception [see 14 Cal. Code Regs., 15004(b)(2)(A)] to the prohibition on commitment to a project before environmental review for purposes of land acquisition” when future use of the site is conditioned on CEQA compliance; further, the project’s special legislation expressly authorized the eminent domain action. (Pub. Resources Code, § 21168.6.6(b)(1).) Plaintiffs’ remaining pre-commitment arguments were forfeited and also meritless under the same analysis.
  • No faulty alternatives analysis for failure to study Sleep Train Arena remodel. The Court rejected plaintiffs’ argument that the EIR’s alternatives analysis was deficient because it did not analyze a project alternative of remodeling the Kings’ current suburban arena, located 6 miles north of downtown. Such an alternative was similar to the “no project” alternative, and would not meet the main project objectives, including the key objectives of revitalizing the economic and social activity in the Downtown Plaza area, and becoming a world-class destination for sports and entertainment events. Additionally, floodplain regulation likely rendered Natomas area alternatives infeasible within the relevant project timeline. Per the Court: “[I]nfeasible alternatives that do not meet project objectives need not be studied even when such alternatives might be imagined to be environmentally superior. Tasked with the study of a proposal to build a new shopping center, a public agency need not study a fruit stand as an alternative.”
  • Traffic analysis and methodology were sufficient. The Court rejected plaintiffs’ argument that the EIR’s analysis of I-5 traffic congestion impacts was deficient for not separately analyzing the project’s “mainline” freeway impacts “on interstate travelers with origins as far as Canada and destinations as remote as Mexico.” The EIR’s methodology for studying freeway congestion was adopted from the December 2010 edition of the Transportation Research Board’s Highway Capacity Manual and the EIR applied it to Caltrans’ data on mainline I-5 traffic. The EIR recognized significant impacts to I-5 congestion – including LOS reaching the worst possible rating at times. The City required certain feasible mitigation measures (including a fair share mitigation payment), found there were no additional feasible measures, recognized the traffic impacts would remain significant and unavoidable, and adopted a statement of overriding considerations supporting project approval. The City’s traffic analysis was adequate in its study and disclosure. Per the Court: “The City was entitled to rely on the methodology and conclusions it articulated in its draft EIR because it had the prerogative to resolve conflicting factual conclusions about the extent of traffic congestion that would result from the downtown arena project.” Further: “CEQA “does not demand what is not realistically possible, given the limitation of time, energy, and funds, “Crystal ball’ inquiry is not required.”” (Quoting Foundation for San Francisco’s Architectural Heritage v. City and County of San Francisco (1980) 106 Cal.App.3d 893, 910.) In rejecting Plaintiffs’ methodology challenge, the Court stated: “The City was not required to separately study the effect on interstate motorists who will be impacted in the same way as other, local motorists sharing the same section of I-5. Moreover,… the EIR did account for mainline traffic because it used the sampling data of mainline freeway traffic collected by Caltrans.”
  • “Crowd safety” was not environmental issue requiring CEQA analysis. The EIR’s conclusions about the size of crowds in and around the arena were supported by substantial evidence, and plaintiffs failed to “show how the safety of persons at the site of the downtown arena must be considered in an EIR studying environmental effects of the project.” As relevant here, CEQA is not concerned with social or economic changes per se, but with reasonably foreseeable physical changes to the environment resulting indirectly from the project. Plaintiffs’ safety concerns failed to “implicate an environmental issue that must be reviewed under CEQA” and, moreover, were factually unsupported: “Far from showing that drunken masses will loiter in an outdoor viewing area, the record shows outdoor viewing will be limited to ticketed patrons in a secured area.”
  • Trial court’s denial of plaintiffs’ motion to augment record with irrelevant documents was presumed correct. In addition to plaintiffs’ forfeiture of the issues on appeal by failing to properly brief them, they failed to address the trial court’s conclusions that an email and loan forgiveness report with which they tried to augment the record were irrelevant and therefore not necessary parts of the administrative record. Appellate courts review the trial court’s, not the agency’s, decision regarding which documents to include in the record and it is a well established appellate principle that the trial court’s decision is presumed correct. Plaintiffs’ separate claim challenging the trial court’s denial of a request it made for 62,000 NBA emails under the Public Records Act was not properly before court because such denials are reviewable only by writ of mandate, not direct appeal. (Citing Times Mirror Co. v. Superior Court (1991) 53 Cal.3d 1325, 1333.)

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