By: Gabe Branco, Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology Vol. 20 Staffer
The Los Angeles Rams, Sacramento Kings, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, and Oakland A’s are all seeking to build new stadiums in compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”). CEQA subjects public and private agencies to a process focused on determining any significant environmental impact the proposed project may have and whether any suitable alternatives exist that may mitigate those significant impacts. The process takes some time, as the agency must complete several environmental impact reports (“EIR”), allow for adequate public notice and comment, and provide a period of time for environmental based claims to be litigated.
The Golden State Warriors have been successful in their CEQA process, but have been subjected to high costs in preparing the EIRs and combating lawsuits from environmental groups. The Los Angeles Rams have taken a different approach. CEQA allows for agencies to file for project “statutory exemptions” in order to cut down on the lengthy procedural process. One exemption of CEQA is the voter-sponsored ballot initiatives. In California, it is the right of the people to make changes to the law through these initiatives, which have the same effect as legislation. Land use decisions are subject to these initiatives, and thus projects that are approved through the initiative are not subject to CEQA. The Los Angeles Rams collected signatures from 15% of the population in Inglewood to qualify the development project for special election. The development project was then supposed to be placed on the ballot initiative, but the Inglewood City Council unanimously approved the project. The Los Angeles Rams do not need to complete an EIR, provide time for notice and comment, and are shielded from litigation. The Los Angeles Clippers, Sacramento Kings, and Oakland A’s have received or are in the process of receiving legislative exemptions with varying CEQA procedures somewhere in between the Golden State Warriors’ and the Los Angeles Rams’ processes. While the afore-mentioned franchises must still complete an EIR, they have considerably reduced (or eliminated) litigation and notice and comment periods.
The question becomes whether these exemptions given so willingly to sports teams weaken CEQA’s ability to force agencies to be more considerate of a project’s environmental impacts and alternatives. Sport stadiums do have a significant impact on the environment. Shortening or doing away with judicial review and notice and comment limits the number of alternatives an agency could be made aware of and limits public recourse for legitimate claims, leading to a less than efficient plan for limiting significant environmental impacts.
So far, the courts have held that past projects with CEQA exemptions do not conflict with CEQA’s purpose. Saltonstall v. City of Sacramento, 234 Cal.App.4th 449 (2015). The rationale may well be rooted in the desire for the Courts to limit the amount of environmental litigation on the Court’s docket, and push through stadium projects that may vitalize a California city’s economy. While state legislators have introduced a bill that would prevent future sports teams from gaining the exemption the Los Angeles Rams received, teams may still limit the procedures enforced by CEQA through legislative exemptions. Clearly, that as long as sports have a strong economic foothold in American culture, sports stadiums will continue to be built at the expense of the environment.