Having defended well locally Friday, the Sonics probably are left with seeing whether they can be outscored by Sacramento. If they can’t, the bodacious deal to bring back the NBA to Seattle probably will be successful.
Little more than a year after the Seattle sports world first heard of a Roosevelt High School kid with a billion-dollar jones for pro hoops in his home town, Chris Hansen, the city and King County scored a legal victory when a judge dismissed Friday afternoon the suit brought by a longshore union against the arena’s location.
Saying he was being asked by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union No. 19 to decide “a political issue when I can decide only a legal issue,” King County Superior Court Judge Douglass North agreed with Hansen and the city attorney’s office that the memorandum of understanding among the defendants that launched Hansen’s pursuit of relocating the Kings to Seattle doesn’t violate state environmental law yet.
Hansen’s plan to put his $490 million basketball/hockey arena immediately south of Safeco Field has drawn the ire of the union, the Port of Seattle mostly because of its impacts on traffic and freight mobility in an already congested area. The MOU says that a review under the State Environmental Policy Act is mandatory, including a study of SoDo impacts and consideration of alternative sites, a process now underway.
But since the review has yet to produce its report, and since the city and county have taken no action, North said he had no grounds to agree to a SEPA violation.
North rejected the argument of union attorney Peter Goldman, who said that creation of the MOU with specific language that favored the SoDo site was an action that violated SEPA, and that filing a lawsuit before final approval was the one “bite of the apple” opponents had to stop the “avalanche” of momentum. SEPA should have occurred before the MOU, Goldman said: “It’s backwards.”
The judge said the agreement set out a framework for a future deal, but didn’t commit the city or county to building an arena south of downtown.
Naturally, the electeds were elated with the decision.
“This is a big win in our work to bring the Sonics home to Seattle,” said Mayor Mike McGinn in a statement. “We are continuing our efforts to follow the decision-making path laid out by the MOU. At the end of that path are decisions by the city and county councils, equipped with more information, on how to proceed with a proposed arena. Part of that new information will be the environmental impact statement which will fully examine the impacts of an arena at various locations.”
King County Executive Dow Constantine added, “We remain committed to carrying out our regulatory responsibilities and the required review . . . In that process we will thoroughly examine the issues raised by the ILWU.
“There’s been a lot of rhetoric. We have traffic issues in SoDo with or without an arena. Let’s look at what are the genuine transportation issues, and develop sensible solutions. It is well within our ability to figure out how to keep people and goods moving through this area.”
President Cameron Williams, who filed the suit on behalf of the union in October, issued a statement saying the union “will continue to oppose the arena site.” Goldman and fellow attorney David Mann said as they left the courtroom that they were disappointed, but undecided about an appeal.
A longtime Seattle land use attorney hired by Hansen, Jack McCullough, offered to North that the ILWU position suffers from “an exuberance of imagination” and that “not one iota of municipal discretion has been limited by the MOU.”
The point addresses the belief by opponents that since SEPA’s conclusions still have to be voted on by the councils, the politicians are highly unlikely to abandon their commitment to Hansen and the SoDo site, no matter what the report says about environmental consequences.
After the decision, union attorney David Mann offered a wrinkle: Since the city and county have made clear in arguments that the panels will take full responsibility for approving or disapproving SEPA results, he said the possibility of a “no” vote complicates the NBA’s decision-making regarding the Kings’ relocation.
“It will give the league pause,” Mann said, knowing that a decision to relocate the Kings for next fall is likely to come at an April 18 meeting of the NBA owners, well before the SEPA report is expected to be completed.
Nevertheless, the quick dispatch of the ILWU case created momentum for Hansen.
“We got over a hurdle in that we put this behind us, but we still have a lot of work to do,” McCullough said.
Another piece of litigation is pending against the project. Taxpayers who claimed the project is in violation of Initiative 91, a city law passed in 2006 that mandates a small profit be returned to the city for leasing KeyArena, have filed suit. But that suit is regarded by city officials as more of a long shot, since city staffers and lawyers renegotiated parts of the agreement before the MOU was signed partly to assure that the deal met or exceeded I-91 requirements. The suit has yet to reach a court calendar.
The upshot for Friday’s outcome is that Hansen’s plan is a step closer to approval in Seattle, but has little influence on the NBA vote, except perhaps to add another layer of urgency to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson’s attempts at a counteroffer to the Maloof family, owner of the Kings.
Johnson reiterated in an interview with ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” program Thursday his belief that relocation “is not a done deal.” He said he will meet a March 1 deadline to present an offer that will include a new arena plan as well as a proposed purchase of the Kings, which were valued at $525 million in a purchase and sale agreement between Hansen and the Maloofs.
That’s now a week away, and the distance for his long shot grew a little Friday.