Another one bites the dust

The Natomas development-for-arena deal collapsed last week, but another version may find its way onto the ballot

Landowners in the Natomas Basin have, for now, retreated from a plan to push two ballot measures that would open the greenbelt north of Sacramento to development and funnel a portion of development profits into building a new arena for the Sacramento Kings.

Together, the measures would have allowed up to 10,000 acres of farmland to be developed, on the condition that landowners donated 20 percent of their profits to build a new sports facility for the Sacramento Kings basketball team and to fund an array of after-school and arts programs. [See “The great Natomas land rush,” SN&R Cover, February 24.]

But landowners pulled the plug on that deal last Wednesday, conceding that they couldn’t guarantee the plan would raise enough money, fast enough, to build the arena by the Kings’ deadline of 2009.

Still, some city officials already have begun to float proposals that would salvage some version of the development-for-arena plan.

Sacramento City Council member Steve Cohn suggested last week that the city could throw 180 acres it owns next to Arco Arena into the mix.

That property passed into city hands after plans to build a baseball stadium stalled for years and ultimately fell apart. The foundations for stadium bleachers are still there today.

Cohn said that, given land values in the Natomas area, the city could sell the property for as much as $75 million, which could go a long way toward closing the financial gap needed to build the arena for the Kings.

What happens next may depend on the Kings’ owners, the Maloof family.

“We’ve all kind of come to the point of feeling like they aren’t really putting anything into it,” Cohn remarked. Last summer, the Maloofs stormed out of a city-council meeting during which Cohn introduced a resolution capping the city’s contribution to a new sports facility at $175 million.

Even if the Kings’ owners won’t play ball, backers of the development plan think they could entice another team.

“Maybe we could go after the [Oakland] A’s or something,” mused Cohn. “We can look at a whole range of options.”

But there are other Sacramentans who would rather the arena deal stayed dead.

Critics say the development plan, dubbed the Farmland Protection and Planning Initiative of 2005, would severely undermine efforts to protect federally listed threatened wildlife species such as the giant garter snake and the Swainson’s hawk. “This is the most important habitat in the world for the giant garter snake, and they intend to destroy it,” said Andy Sawyer, president of the Environmental Council of Sacramento (ECOS), “because if they protected it, they wouldn’t make any money.”

The current Natomas Basin Habitat Conservation Plan assumes that development won’t occur beyond the current city limits at Elkhorn Boulevard.

Even that plan has been decried as woefully inadequate by environmental groups, which, to this day, have lawsuits pending in the state and federal courts. Any additional development push northward—especially the 10,000 acres contemplated by the arena proposal—would be extremely contentious.

“There will probably be more lawsuits,” Sawyer warned.

Jeff Raimundo, one of the political consultants who has spent the last few months shepherding the arena proposal for the Natomas landowners, guessed that some version of the plan would make it onto the ballot in 2006.

“I don’t think anybody wants this thing to just lie fallow,” Raimundo said. Raimundo, who makes his living running political campaigns, added that the ballot was the most likely path to success.

“When it comes to something as fundamental as developing a whole region like this, I just don’t think you can get the city council or county supervisors to act that quickly.”