Arena wars, part two

Environmentalists contend the Blanas-Tsakopoulos arena proposal threatens land protected by the Endangered Species Act

A version of this map, used in early discussions of the Joint Vision Plan for North Natomas, provides a guide to Sheriff Lou Blanas’ plan to develop the eastern half of the open space and to preserve the western half, which borders the river.

A version of this map, used in early discussions of the Joint Vision Plan for North Natomas, provides a guide to Sheriff Lou Blanas’ plan to develop the eastern half of the open space and to preserve the western half, which borders the river.

According to a recent poll, only 16 percent of 600 Sacramentans polled rank “building a new Sacramento Kings arena” as a high priority for local governments. Out of 15 issues to be ranked as either “high” or “low” priority, the arena came in dead last. By comparison, “providing police and fire services” was considered a high priority by the greatest majority: 92 percent of respondents; “improving public schools” was second with 89 percent. Next to the arena, the lowest priority was “planning for development in the North Natomas area,” which only 29 percent considered a high priority.

These numbers might suggest that a combination of the two lowest ranking issues—let’s say an arena paid for by the development of North Natomas—would strike a majority of Sacramentans as a very low priority for local governments. However, Sheriff Lou Blanas, in association with developer Angelo Tsakopoulos, suggests that voters consider just such a plan. And when put to the same respondents, the plan, painted in broad brush strokes, impressed 62 percent, who said they would support it.

Jeff Raimundo, who works with Blanas’ political consultants, believes that the incongruity in the poll numbers shows that Sacramentans want to retain the Kings, but don’t want their local governments to pay for a new arena with tax money.

Another reason for the seeming disparity may be the wording of what one environmentalist referred to as “feel-good questions” in the poll, conducted by J. Moore Methods with a plus-or-minus 4.5-point margin of error. One of the questions that inspired majority support summarized the proposal as follows: “the proposal would provide for the protection of 10,000 acres of open space and farmlands bordering the Sacramento River and the Sutter County line, and would also allow for 10,000 acres of development one mile away from the river near the I-5 corridor.” Proceeds from developed land would finance the arena.

While the question seems to focus on the preservation of open space, it fails to mention that, currently, environmentalists already consider most of the 20,000 acres protected because they provide habit for a number of animals, like the giant garter snake, protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Surprisingly, the same percentage of respondents who approved of the proposal also identified themselves to pollsters as “environmentalists.”

Leaders of local environmental organizations, some of whom have been fighting development in the Northern Territories of Natomas for years through political and legal channels, find any further development of the Northern Territories unacceptable. They may be supported by federal and state regulators, who have already approved a “Habitat Conservation Plan” that opened 17,500 acres of the 54,000 acre North Natomas area to development under the assumption that most of the remaining basin would remain undeveloped.

Jeff Roberts of the Natomas Basin Conservancy claimed that federal and state regulators consider the entire Northern Territories to be habitat to one or more of 22 protected species. He also claimed that securing development permits for protected lands can be expensive, time-consuming and “fraught with litigation.”

Even the 2003 Habitat Conservation Plan was contentious; it’s still being fought in court.

In early September, after a series of conversations with both developers and city and county officials, Blanas unveiled a proposed solution to the arena problem that has obsessed Kings fans and city administrators alike in recent years. Of the remaining 20,000 acres of open space in North Natomas, Blanas recommended opening up half to development, and retaining half, including a one-mile buffer along the American River and the Sacramento/Sutter County border, as permanent open space. Of the 10,000 acres opened for development, the owners would donate 20 percent for sale. Why? Because if Blanas’ plan makes it onto the ballot as an initiative, and Sacramentans approve, much red tape would be cut and developers would have a more streamlined process for developing their lands. Their donated acres would be sold, and the proceeds would go into a charitable trust that would pay for the building of a new arena. Though no site has been picked for the arena, it’s been estimated that the sale of 2,000 acres of prime North Natomas land could raise as much as $500,000 for its construction.

The arena, Blanas said, would belong to the public, not the Kings. Leasing fees for the arena would also go into a trust to provide money for art programs.

For people polled, the plan had an obvious appeal. It would end the debate over who should pay for the arena, raise money for the arts and, goes the argument, preserve open space along the river. But environmentalists balk at that final assumption.

Pointing out the fact that only one-third of the previously zoned 17,500 acres of North Natomas has been developed, Jim Pachl, legal counsel for the Friends for the Swainson’s Hawk, claimed that we still don’t know the impact of previous development decisions. He finds any new development beyond the zoned 17,500 acres to be excessive.

“I’m outraged by the sheriff lending the prestige of his office … to help out a bunch of land speculators,” said Pachl.

Pachl also disputes whether there are 20,000 acres to be divided in the area. Subtracting acreage controlled by the airport and already slated for development, Pachl estimates that the acreage is more like 15,000 acres, and some of that land is part of the flood plain. He fears that the plan, once detailed, will preserve less than half of the remaining North Natomas lands as permanent open space.

Blanas was not immediately available to answer questions about his plan, though he has claimed that it’s still in the early stages of development. A lack of detail was part of what killed this year’s earlier proposed ballot initiative regarding a publicly funded arena, but Blanas still has time to refine his vision for future elections.

Though the debate on the sheriff’s plan has only begun, the issue of developing North Natomas is an old one. After reaching an agreement to work together in 2002, the city and county of Sacramento began a long-collaborative process for accomplishing the same goals presented in the first half of Blanas’ plan. The Joint Vision Plan for North Natomas also assumes 10,000 acres of development and an equal amount of permanent open space along the river and the county border. Planners broadly estimate that the process of environmental and public review of the Joint Vision could take years, making it unlikely that any new development will begin before 2010, which brings up questions about how quickly an arena could be built, even if an initiative is approved.

Environmentalists understand that with the Joint Vision moving slowly forward, it’s likely that some of the land in the Northern Territories will be developed, whether or not voters approve Blanas’ plan. But they’re not convinced that they need to give up 10,000 acres of open space to development.

David Mogavero, former president of the Environmental Council of Sacramento, thinks that environmentalists might have enough leverage to insist that two to three acres be preserved for every one acre that is developed.

In his opinion, prime agricultural land a few minutes’ drive from downtown should be so lucrative that it would be unnecessary to develop half the territory. Higher-density development would be more cost-effective and profitable. And it would leave more open space. These are issues that can be debated during the planning process if the city and county continue to work toward a final Joint Vision, instead of letting voters decide on Blanas’ proposition.

If Blanas’ ballot initiative is put to a vote, he would, in effect, “hijack a natural public process,” said Vicki Lee of the Sierra Club. Though any development approved by voters would still have to go through environmental review, the final plan would not have incorporated the same level of public involvement.

“This short-circuits all the studies the city and county agreed to do,” said Lee. “Skip over officials and go directly to build it and pave it.”

Carol Shirley, the city’s manager for North Natomas, felt differently. She praised Blanas’ plan for bringing together “the two projects churning through” the city’s development process: the arena and the Joint Vision.

“Blanas’ concept,” she said, “was to give legs to the Joint Vision.” By supporting the plan laid out by the city and county, Sacramentans can secure something they want, a new arena.

The idea of tying the arena to the development of North Natomas is precisely what worries Lee, who fears that developers have learned that dangling a popular project in front of citizens is a great way to secure the right to develop agricultural lands.

Angelo Tsakopoulos of AKT Development Corp., the developer who worked closely with Blanas in refining his plan, was unavailable for comment, but spokesman Steve Capps said that AKT does own land in the North Natomas basin, though he wouldn’t say how much. “We don’t generally disclose what our holdings are around the region,” said Capps. But he did reiterate that developers wouldn’t just be making money, but giving money away, too, by donating one-fifth of their land to the buying of an arena for Sacramento.

Blanas’ plan, which has received early interest from local politicians, still faces enormous hurdles. It will have to receive enough signatures to be put on the ballot, and it will have to provide details that would normally emerge from a public process, including which lands will be preserved or developed, a situation that could be complicated by the existence of a flood plain and the location of the airport, along with the needs of protected species.

Chuck Dalldorf, chief of staff for the mayor’s office, said that he’s not sure there’s a lot of agreement yet in regard to the complex issue of what should be done in North Natomas. “There’s a lot of work to be done,” he said. If anyone thinks it’s going to be quick, political experience proves otherwise.