Farmers Field passes another hurdle

In a decision that could pave the way for the NFL to return to Los Angeles next year, the California State Senate passed a bill to expedite legal challenges to Farmers Field, Anschutz Entertainment Group's $1.2 billion proposed football stadium in downtown Los Angeles.

Senate Bill 292, which passed 32-7, will now go to California Gov. Jerry Brown, who has 30 days to either sign or veto the bill. He is expected to sign it but if he takes no action, the bill will become law anyway. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced his support for the bipartisan bill on Thursday.

Friday's decision represents the biggest milestone for the NFL's return to Los Angeles since the city council unanimously passed the financial framework of an agreement between AEG and the city last month to build the 72,000-seat stadium and a new $275 million wing of the Los Angeles Convention Center next to Staples Center and L.A. Live, also owned by AEG.

AEG president and CEO Tim Leiweke said plans for Farmers Field could not have continued unless the bill was passed. He said he expected Majestic Realty, which has a rival stadium proposal in the City of Industry, to file or back a lawsuit in an attempt to stop the downtown project by tying it up in litigation for years.

Ed Roski, 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. Roski was able to secure an exemption to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by the state Senate in 2009 for his project. 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 impossible for AEG to secure a similar deal.

AEG's bill includes no exemption from environmental laws and would allow legal challenges to the stadium's environmental impact report (EIR) 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 has committed to making Farmers Field one of the only stadiums in the country to have a net-zero carbon footprint.

"This is not 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."

AEG's bill actually inspired a landmark day in the Senate as state lawmakers also passed AB 900, a bill modeled on SB 292 and introduced less than 24 hours before it was voted on, which would allow a variety of statewide big-ticket projects such as stadiums and arenas to apply to the governor for similar expedited legal challenges while also holding them to the same strict environmental measures. Both bills received overwhelming bipartisan support because California's unemployment rate is currently at 12 percent, the second-highest of any state, and fast-tracking construction on proposed stadiums and arenas has the potential to create thousands of much-needed jobs in the state.

The ruling will now allow AEG to continue with design and environmental work currently being done at a cost of $50 million, in the hopes of breaking ground on the project by June 2012. If AEG is able to clear all environmental and legal challenges by May, an NFL team will likely announce plans to relocate to Los Angeles and play in either the Coliseum or the Rose Bowl until Farmers Field is completed.

If environmental and legal challenges drag into July when NFL teams begin training camp, a team likely wouldn't relocate until 2013 and construction would not begin until February 2013. AEG's agreement with the city states construction on the project cannot begin until an NFL team has signed a long-term lease to play in Los Angeles. AEG is hoping to begin construction on the project in June 2012 with Farmers Field opening in September 2016, but is prepared to push that schedule back one year if needed.

"If we can get through the EIR and we think we will by May and if we can have certainty that if there are challenges that they will be dealt with in a reasonable period of time, I believe somewhere between the end of the Super Bowl in 2012 to the end of the Super Bowl in 2013 we are going to be able to prove to the NFL and to a team that we are now ready to go," Leiweke said. "We have cleared all the legal challenges, the environmental challenges, the financing challenges and we have a definitive agreement with the city of Los Angeles. That means we can play football at Farmers Field hopefully no later than 2016, but we are prepared to go to 2017 if we have to."

The team most commonly linked to moving to Los Angeles is the San Diego Chargers, who began as the Los Angeles Chargers playing at the Coliseum in 1960. They have tried unsuccessfully for nearly a decade to get a new venue to replace 45-year-old Qualcomm Stadium. The Chargers can announce their intentions to leave San Diego between Feb. 1 and May 1 of each year through 2020 if they pay off bonds tied to the expansion of Qualcomm Stadium in 1997, which would be about $24 million.

The Chargers are one of five teams, along with the St. Louis Rams, Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders and Minnesota Vikings, with whom Leiweke has had conversations about relocating to Los Angeles.

Sen. Christine Kehoe, whose district represents San Diego, and Sen. Loni Hancock, whose district represents Oakland, did not vote for the bill despite commending it, saying they were worried Farmers Field could become the future home of the Chargers or Raiders.

Leiweke said CEQA and lengthy environmental lawsuits were the biggest concerns for Anschutz and teams interested in moving to Los Angeles and Friday's ruling should ease those concerns and allow for an NFL team to move to Los Angeles as early as next season if AEG can get past the environmental process and legal challenges before June.

"There are certain boxes we had to check to make Mr. Anschutz comfortable with this and this is one of those boxes," Leiweke said.

Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.