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Friday, July 27, 2012 - Page updated at 05:00 p.m.

Guest columnist
Con: Sodo arena proposal violates the state's environmental-review law

By Peter Goldman
Special to The Times

CHRIS Hansen, a motivated and sincere basketball fan, quietly buys up millions of dollars of property in Sodo and approaches Seattle and King County with a proposition: He will invest about $290 million in an arena and buy an NBA team (and later lure an NHL team) if Seattle and King County invest $200 million in public bonds to make this a public-private partnership.

This take-it-or-leave-it proposal looks at first glance like a gift from heaven to the basketball bereft of Washington state. Mayor Mike McGinn and King County Executive Dow Constantine jump on it in a memorandum of understanding. But there's one catch: Hansen demands that the publicly financed arena be located on his chosen site in Sodo.

Is this take-it-or-leave-it deal good policy or even legal under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA)? SEPA is the "stop, look and listen" law that protects both the environment and taxpayers from the consequences of government not thinking ahead before authorizing public projects. In my view, the arena memorandum of understanding violates the letter and spirit of SEPA and puts our laws up for sale to the highest bidder.

Because public bonds will be used to finance the deal, the proposed arena is a public project. SEPA requires local government agencies to consider the potential environmental impacts of a public project before the project is approved so that these impacts — in the urban environment, primarily traffic and the movement of freight — can be avoided, mitigated or, at the very least, consciously chosen.

SEPA also requires government to consider, in good faith, alternative locations for public projects. Every Seattle stadium that has been sited and built since SEPA, including the Kingdome, has required informed data relating to alternative sites and other key issues before locking down significant decisions.

McGinn and Constantine argue the arena deal honors SEPA because the memorandum of understanding requires the city and county to conduct SEPA review later. But our state's SEPA regulations clearly require that SEPA review kick in at the earliest possible stage of a proposal, such as when a government agency "has a goal and is actively preparing to make a decision on one or more alternative means of accomplishing that goal" and "the goal's environmental effects can be meaningfully measured."

SEPA regulations expressly provide that review cannot be postponed just because more environmental review will occur later on.

The memorandum of understanding on the table is ripe for SEPA review today: It specifies an arena of a specific size on a specific site, the number of car trips per average event (approximately 6,000) is known, and it is certainly feasible to conduct a thorough unbiased traffic study to assess the proposed arena's cumulative impacts on the Port of Seattle, industrial area operations and general Seattle-area traffic.

Conducting a SEPA review later will be a sham. The proposed memorandum of understanding has already identified the site, so any future alternative site comparisons would be meaningless. And because the financial terms of the deal have been agreed upon, it is likely that the public, not arena proponents, will be left to foot the bill of the arena's hefty off-site mitigation costs, such as improving nearby key road and train crossings.

Some will say that SEPA is a senseless process that will kill the deal. But SEPA is the public's only tool to ensure that our elected leaders consider the impacts and alternatives before they authorize a public project.

There is no "good deal" or "bring back our Sonics" exception to SEPA. Let's focus the regional passion for getting the Sonics back by playing by the rules and getting the score right before the tipoff.

Peter Goldman has lived in Seattle for 30 years. He is an environmental lawyer and the director of the Washington Forest Law Center, which has its offices in Pioneer Square.

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