After two decades without a football team, Los Angeles County now has a handful of competing stadium proposals designed to woo the National Football League back to town. On Tuesday night, the Inglewood City Council may approve one of those projects — a $1.5-billion, 80,000-seat stadium that would be built at the site of the former Hollywood Park racetrack.
Hollywood Park is already being transformed; the city approved a plan in 2009 to build 3,000 houses and office and retail buildings on the 238-acre site, and construction is underway. Then last year, St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke bought an adjacent 60 acres and joined forces with the developer, Stockbridge Capital Group, to redesign the project to include an NFL-quality stadium. The Hollywood Park stadium project joins several others, among them Anschutz Entertainment Group's proposal to build what it is calling Farmer's Field in downtown L.A., and developer Ed Roski's proposal to build a stadium in the city of Industry.
But the Hollywood Park proposal is unusual. Unlike AEG or Roski, its developers are seeking the necessary zoning approvals through a ballot initiative, which would allow them to skip the lengthy environmental studies, the public review process and the threat of lawsuits that are generally required of big projects under the California Environmental Quality Act. As a result, the proposal is moving at warp speed for a project of its size. The developers first unveiled the concept in early January and immediately collected 22,000 signatures for the initiative — more than double the number they needed to qualify for the ballot. And only two months after the plan was announced, the Inglewood City Council at its Tuesday meeting could approve the initiative for the June 2 ballot or even adopt the plan outright, with no election at all.
This is all perfectly legal. Projects approved by initiative are not subject to CEQA. And the California Supreme Court ruled last summer that a voter-sponsored initiative could be adopted outright by a City Council, also without CEQA review.
Given those two choices, Inglewood's political leaders should opt for a vote of the people. If the city is going to expedite a major development without the usual environmental review, that decision shouldn't be made by five city officials acting on their own. Sure, 22,000 people may have signed petitions to approve a ballot measure, but that doesn't necessarily mean a majority of the city's voters would ultimately back the project. By most accounts the project, which would create both short-term and long-term jobs, is popular, but it makes sense to let the voters speak for themselves. For the council to leave them out of such a significant decision would be a mistake.
But to be clear: Even if the initiative does go to a citywide vote, it's still far from an ideal process. Major land-use decisions are not best addressed at the ballot box. It's unreasonable to expect voters to analyze a 150-page-plus initiative or decide whether a developer has planned enough sewer capacity or traffic lanes to accommodate a project. The CEQA process allows people and institutions to comment and raise questions about the air, traffic, noise and other impacts of a project, and it requires developers to respond and to mitigate unacceptable impacts; it also allows opponents of a project to go to court if their concerns are not addressed. Another advantage is that CEQA allows for participation by people who might be affected by the project but who live outside the boundaries of the jurisdiction, whereas the initiative process allows only a city's voters to take part.
Developers are turning to the initiative process, in part, because CEQA has become cumbersome, costly, time-consuming and subject to abuse. While it often compels builders to improve their proposals, it has also been used as a tool to stop development by opponents whose objectives have nothing to do with protecting the environment. The Hollywood Park developers had already spent several years on a lengthy environmental impact report for the housing and retail development plan, and they could probably have completed an addendum EIR for the stadium in a matter of months. But they would have had no way of knowing whether the process would have gotten tied up in court and dragged on for years after that. That's one of the problems with CEQA; it makes the approval process unpredictable.
The best answer is not more initiatives that bypass CEQA — nor is it more exceptions for companies like AEG, which got a special law passed in 2011 to speed up judicial review of any lawsuits filed against its stadium. The answer is reform of CEQA itself so that developers don't feel it necessary to find ways around the law. It is the responsibility of the Legislature to find a better balance between the people's right to understand and mitigate the environmental impacts of a project and the need to keep good projects moving forward without unnecessary delay, bureaucracy or red tape.
In the absence of CEQA reform, we'll continue to see ballot box zoning. We may even see more, now that the California Supreme Court has ruled that city councils can enact initiatives directly without CEQA review or a vote of the people. Some developers may decide that it's cheaper and easier to pay signature gatherers, qualify an initiative for the ballot and then urge local government to approve the project outright without any environmental review. Just last week, the San Diego Chargers and the Oakland Raiders announced they would begin collecting signatures for a ballot initiative to approve their plans for a new football stadium in Carson.
There must be a better way to build in California.