Jerry Brown signs bill to boost LA venue

LOS ANGELES -- California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill Tuesday 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 the California State Senate and Assembly less than three weeks ago, includes no exemption from environmental laws but 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 for an expedited legal review, 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.

Tuesday's bill signing, which took place in front of the West Hall of the Los Angeles Convention Center -- which would be torn down to build Farmers Field -- 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.

"It's time to tear this hall behind us down," AEG president and CEO Tim Leiweke said, standing before the West Hall. "It's time to tear this piece of concrete we stand and sit on today down. ... I am proud that we are at a moment now that I can go to Gov. Brown to (Assembly) Speaker (John) Perez to Senate President pro Tem (Darrell) Steinberg to Los Angeles Mayor (Antonio) Villaraigosa and to the leaders of our state and now ask you to join me in convincing the NFL to make this a reality. We now have a bill that gives us certainty to get this stadium built."

Leiweke said plans for Farmers Field could not have continued unless the bill was passed and signed into law by Gov. Brown. 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.

"It's time for big ideas and big projects like this," Brown said. "This is the way we get people working. As the government, we're not building anything, that's what the private sector and individuals do but we can pave the way. I'm signing a bill focused on the stadium and convention center and another broadly focused on cutting red tape all over the state. We're going to remove some regulations and speed things up while also protecting the environment, but we have to do it in a practical way because there are too damn many regulations."

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 actually inspired AB 900, a bill modeled on SB 292, 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 were signed by Brown Tuesday after receiving 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 bill 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 and having the stadium ready for the 2016 NFL season.

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. If a lawsuit is filed after AEG files their environmental impact report in late May, a team likely wouldn't relocate until 2013 since a decision on the lawsuit would not be made until October and no team would risk moving with a lawsuit on their proposed new stadium pending or in progress no matter how confident AEG would be in the result. Such a lawsuit would push the start of construction to February 2013 at the earliest and the opening of the stadium to 2017.

SB 292, AEG's naming rights deal with Farmers Insurance and soon-to-be-announced founding partner deals would still be in place in 2013.

As soon as AEG clears all environmental and legal challenges, 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.

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.

"I'm focused on getting the stadium built for 2016 but we're certainly prepared if it has to slip to 2017," Leiweke said. "Right now our priority is getting the EIR completed and filed, getting a definitive agreement signed with the city and work with the NFL on a process to get a team here. The toughest part is getting a team but we are confident there are teams that are not going to solve their stadium problems and they can solve their problems by coming here. We are going to follow the lead of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, we are engaged with the commissioner and his staff and we will stay engaged with them and be relentless until we bring this home."

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