For NFL, L.A. Considers Trading Environment For Jobs

Lawmakers in California are so interested in getting an NFL team back in Los Angeles, they've just passed a bill that would exempt a new stadium project from any environmental regulations. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill this week at the site of the future stadium. Many residents are angry at the environmental bypass, but the city stands to gain some thousands of jobs. Rob Schmitz of member station KQED has the story.

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Washington, D.C. has that flailing football team but it's got a football team. There hasn't been pro football in Los Angeles for 15 years. And this week, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill that did away with environmental oversight for a proposed stadium that would return the NFL to the Los Angeles area.

As KQED's Rob Schmitz reports, some fear it'll set a disturbing precedent.

ROB SCHMITZ: Los Angeles hasn't had an NFL team since 1994. That's when the Raiders and Rams left the city because taxpayers refused to pay team owners to build new stadiums. Still, the economic prospects for a team in the nation's second-largest television market is a no-brainer.

So, if taxpayers in L.A. won't help you build a stadium, what's a poor billionaire to do? The answer: find a city nearby where hardly anyone lives and where business is king.

Mayor DAVID PEREZ (Industry, California): We're really a business-friendly city, designed that way for business.

SCHMITZ: David Perez is the mayor of the city of Industry. He walks along a ridge overlooking his city's warehouses and office buildings 20 miles east of Los Angeles. The city doesn't collect business taxes, and factories are allowed to operate 24/7. Only 800 people live here and they don't mind big, new projects coming to town. In other words, if you're a billionaire, this is a perfect place to build a football stadium, but not for Industry's neighbors.

Ms. BRIDGET BEARKE(ph): We're very concerned that they want to come through, remove our bike lanes, widen our streets, narrow our medians.

SCHMITZ: Bridget Bearke is from Walnut, the affluent neighboring town that calls itself Little Switzerland.

Mr. BEARKE: Game days, we won't be able to leave our homes. We're going to be locked in here.

SCHMITZ: Bearke and seven others filed a lawsuit to try and stop the project. The complaint took aim at the hasty manner in which billionaire developer Ed Roski assembled the environmental impact report for the stadium. Instead of going through the lengthy process of completing one, Roski instead recycled an old report from a shopping center he wanted to build at the same site, use that and added a supplement which included the new project.

Ms. BEARKE: Personally, I was just so disgusted.

SCHMITZ: Bearke wasn't alone. The majority of the agencies that signed off on the original report also criticized the move. Lawyers throughout the state said the citizens group's lawsuit would probably prevail, which would have forced Roski to draft a new report for the project.

Instead of going to court, though, Roski went to Sacramento, where his lobbyists persuaded California's legislature to pass a bill that will exempt state environmental laws for the project, effectively nullifying the lawsuit.

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Republican, California): It's about time that we get a football team back to Los Angeles.

SCHMITZ: This week, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill. Behind the governor were dozens of workers wearing gleaming white hardhats - all union members excited at the developer's promise of 18,000 new jobs for a state with the fourth-highest unemployment rate in the country.

Schwarzenegger addressed the thorny environmental issue by saying it was the citizens group, not the legislature, that was making a mockery of the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQUA.

Gov. SCHWARZENEGGER: It is clear that the opponents aren't using CEQUA for the sake of the environment, but they're abusing CEQUA to stop the project just because they don't like it.

SCHMITZ: Schwarzenegger praised the project, highlighting the fact that it'll be the first stadium in the country to be certified as having a green building design. The stadium will be built into the hillside and will be powered by solar panels.

But many environmentalists aren't swayed. Tina Andolina is legislative director of the Planning and Conservation League. She says throwing out environmental oversight to approve this project is an unprecedented move in state politics, one she warns that will return to haunt Californians.

Ms. TINA ANDOLINA (Legislative Director, Planning and Conservation League): This means that next year we can expect to see big massive developments up and down the state running to the legislature with high-paid lobbyists asking for exemptions. If you could do it for an NFL stadium, you could do it for anything. It's really, really disheartening.

SCHMITZ: But it's anything but disheartening for Maria Elena Durazo, who head's L.A. County's AFL-CIO.

Ms. MARIA ELENA DURAZO (L.A. County AFL-CIO): More than 30 percent of the construction union workers are currently unemployed. Brothers and sisters, that's not a recession, that's a crisis. This stadium then is going to bring renewed hope for those families.

SCHMITZ: But families in San Diego might be left out. That city's football team, the Chargers, seems open to relocate because it wants a new stadium. A state senator representing the region tried unsuccessfully to change the bill to require that any team based at the new stadium come from out of state.

After all, said the senator, if L.A. lures away another California team, there will be no net economic benefit for the Golden State.

For NPR News, I'm Rob Schmitz in Los Angeles.

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