Judge blocks longshore workers’ Sonics arena lawsuit
A judge rules that the deal to build a new arena in Sodo does not violate state environmental law.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Longshore workers and their attorneys Friday vowed to keep fighting the proposed Sodo sports arena after a King County judge tossed their lawsuit challenging the location.
“We will continue to oppose this project and the development of a sports-entertainment complex in Sodo that would ... drive maritime jobs and business away from Seattle,” said Cameron Williams, president of Local 19 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
Their attorneys took a slightly more conciliatory tone, saying they would be actively involved in the upcoming environmental review, but hadn’t yet decided whether to appeal the ruling.
“We’re going to be fully involved as they look at traffic impacts, freight movement and the lives of the families that depend on these jobs,” said David Mann, attorney for the union.
King County Superior Court Judge Douglass North ruled that an agreement reached in October between the city of Seattle, King County and investor Chris Hansen did not violate state environmental law.
He rejected the union’s argument that the months of negotiations and public debate that led up to the agreement created a “snowball effect” that ensured the Sodo site would be approved, regardless of potential environmental impacts.
Attorneys for the city, county and Hansen said the agreement plainly stated that an environmental review would be completed before a final decision was made to issue public bonds or start construction.
The complex agreement outlines the conditions under which the city and county will contribute up to $200 million in public financing for a $490 million arena and how the bonds will be repaid through arena tax revenues. Completing the environmental review is one of those conditions, said Jeff Weber, assistant Seattle city attorney.
Local politicians praised the ruling and promised to carry out the required environmental review.
“This is a big win in our work to bring the Sonics home to Seattle,” said Mayor Mike McGinn, who conducted months of secret negotiations with Hansen before unveiling a year ago the outlines of the plan to return professional basketball to the city and attract a National Hockey League team.
County Executive Dow Constantine said the environmental assessment would address the union’s concerns about freight mobility.
“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 the area,” Constantine said in a statement.
The longshore workers said the agreement designated the Sodo site before a required state environmental assessment — including an examination of alternate sites — had been done.
Union officials said they welcomed the return of the Sonics, but not in Sodo.
In court Friday, the union’s attorneys argued that Hansen had already used the agreement to purchase the Sacramento Kings, to ask the NBA to relocate the team to Seattle, and had proposed the team play in KeyArena while the Sodo arena was built.
They said state law prohibited any action that limited the choice of alternate sites before the full environmental consequences were known.
“What council could possibly vote this down? What council would leave the Sonics homeless in KeyArena? The entire point (of the agreement) is to make the Sodo arena inevitable,” argued Peter Goldman, one of the longshore workers’ attorneys.
Jack McCullough, attorney for Hansen’s development company, said the union’s arguments were based on an “exuberance of imagination,” speculation about possible harm that hadn’t occurred.
The judge signaled his skepticism of the union arguments early in the hearing. He said the governments were unlikely to approve an alternate location for the arena because “no one was proposing to build an arena elsewhere.”
And though he later conceded that the lengthy negotiations and public debate may have created political momentum for a Sodo arena, he said state environmental law doesn’t include any language about snowballing or political momentum.
“The issue is whether a binding decision has been made. ... What’s been done is a framework in advance of SEPA (State Environmental Policy Act). The final decision will be made after SEPA is done,” the judge concluded.
The Seattle court proceedings were blogged live in Sacramento, where there were hopes that an adverse ruling could scuttle Hansen’s plan to move the Kings to Seattle.
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson is trying to put together an investment group and an arena plan as attractive as Hansen’s.
Michael McCann, an on-air legal analyst for NBA-TV, said the ruling “clears one hurdle for Seattle to get the Kings. I never expected this lawsuit to be the difference in whether the Kings stay in Sacramento or move to Seattle, but it facilitates (a move) and I think it raises the stakes for Kevin Johnson to put together a decisively better package.”
But the Seattle arena plan isn’t in the clear yet. In addition to the required environmental review, which the city will conduct later this year, a second lawsuit argues that the deal with Hansen violates Seattle Initiative 91, which requires the city to make a profit on any public financing of a sports facility.
That case is set for trial in May 2014.
Seattle Times staff reporter Bob Condotta contributed
to this report.
Lynn Thompson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8305. On Twitter:@lthompsontimes