An In-Depth Look at the Oakland A's Proposed New Stadium Project
- Opponents of the proposed Oakland A's stadium at Howard Terminal argued that the Governor missed a deadline to certify the project for an expedited environmental review pursuant to Assembly Bill (AB) 734, a special purpose bill.
- AB 734 contained no explicit deadline for certification, but it incorporated guidelines from AB 900, as amended, which did include a certification deadline.
- The court looked to the legislative history and statements of purpose for AB 734, and ruled that the Legislature did not impose AB 900's deadline for the Governor to certify environmental review.
The City of Oakland's hope of retaining its only remaining professional sports franchise survived a legal challenge, thanks to the appellate ruling in Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, et al. v. Gavin C. Newsom, et al. (Cal. Ct. App., Aug. 10, 2021, No. A162001) upholding the Governor's certification of the proposed baseball stadium and mixed-development project at the Howard Terminal site near Jack London Square.
The proposed new ballpark for the Oakland A's is facilitated by special legislation, Assembly Bill (AB) 734, designed to fast track judicial review of the stadium project's Environmental Impact Report (EIR) or approval upon the Governor's certification of the project's consistency with enumerated environmental standards. Though Governor Newsom certified the project on February 11, 2021, project opponents contended that AB 734 imported guidelines from a similar streamlining bill, AB 900, which imposed a certification deadline of January 1, 2020. After examining the bill's legislative history and purpose, the court concluded that the most reasonable interpretation of AB 734 was that no certification deadline applied. As a result, the case did not affect the project's environmental review, leaving some hope for the Athletics to remain in Oakland.
AB 900 and AB 734 BackgroundIn 2011, the Legislature passed AB 900 in response to the rising use of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) challenges to obstruct projects with clear employment and environmental benefits. AB 900 established streamlined administrative and judicial review procedures for "environmental leadership development projects" that met certain criteria, including the creation of high-wage jobs, LEED gold certification, transportation efficiencies, and no additional net emissions of greenhouse gasses. Once the Governor certified that a project met the statutory criteria, CEQA challenges had to be resolved within 270 days, to the extent feasible. AB 900 required the Governor to prepare Guidelines to certify Environmental Leadership Development Projects. As amended, AB 900 required certification by January 1, 2020, with lead agency approval of such projects by January 1, 2021.
AB 734 was enacted in November 2018 to expedite CEQA review for a new stadium and mixed-use development for the Oakland A's at Howard Terminal. Under AB 734, the stadium itself and any non-residential project construction must achieve LEED gold (or comparable rating), greenhouse gas neutrality as determined by the California Air Resources Board, reduce vehicle trips by 20 percent, and offer a "comprehensive package of community benefits."
Similar to AB 900, court challenges to the stadium project were required to be resolved within 270 days after the Governor certified the project. AB 734, however, did not provide an explicit deadline to certify the stadium project. Instead, AB 734 incorporated the AB 900 Guidelines to the extent those guidelines were applicable and did not conflict with specific requirements of AB 734.
Legislative history and statutory purpose suggested that AB 734 has no certification deadlinePlaintiffs filed suit in March 2020, arguing that, per the AB 900 Guidelines, the Governor's power to certify the stadium project had expired on January 1, 2020. Defendants contended that AB 734 included no such certification deadline and that imposing a certification deadline from AB 900 would conflict with the requirements of AB 734, and therefore should not apply. The trial court sided with Defendants, and Plaintiffs appealed.
On appeal, the court provided a detailed analysis of the legislative history of SB 734 and noted that AB 734 had been designed to "closely align the bill with AB 900 standards" by including LEED standards, specifying that the stadium needed to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, and adding the Governor certification requirement, but had not elected to include the certification deadline from AB 900. The court cited statements from the bill's sponsor that AB 734 was intended to address the deadline for certification under AB 900. The court also noted that the bill's purpose was to provide an environmentally sustainable stadium project to generate employment.
The court echoed the goal of the "[City] and the entire East Bay region to retain a professional sports team" and reasoned that "petitioners' reading of the statute would undermine rather than promote the general purposes of the statute." The court then concluded that the more reasonable interpretation of AB 734 is that the certification deadlines from AB 900 were not incorporated into AB 734.
ConclusionThis decision demonstrates that courts are recognizing the shift in legislative intent to streamline CEQA review and are interpreting special-purpose statutes in favor of furthering ambitious economic development goals. As a result, future special-purpose statutes for streamlining CEQA review will likely be reviewed favorably by the courts. For Oakland A's fans, while this is almost certainly not the last hurdle the Howard Terminal project will face, the prospects of a new stadium in Oakland, much like the Oakland A's playoff hopes, are still alive.
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