Great America owners sue Santa Clara over 49ers stadium deal
By Howard Mintzhmintz@mercurynews.com
Posted: 12/08/2009 04:14:37 PM PST
Updated: 12/09/2009 04:50:33 AM PST
As the Santa Clara City Council approved a crucial environmental report Tuesday on a proposed stadium for the 49ers, the corporate owners of Great America theme park sued to void the terms of a deal between the city and the NFL team, saying the pact is illegal and threatens the rights of the park — which would stand adjacent to the new stadium if it is approved.
The lawsuit marked yet another escalation of tension between Cedar Fair Entertainment — Great America's owners — and the city over the stadium project, just as the council was considering a resolution to put the stadium proposal before voters on the June 8 ballot. In a lawsuit filed late Monday in Santa Clara County Superior Court, Cedar Fair argues that the June agreement between the city and the 49ers should not have been consummated before the completion and approval of an environmental impact report.
With its chamber packed with stadium supporters and foes, the council late Tuesday voted 5-2 to approve the environmental impact report, a thick document that outlines the potential impact of a 49ers stadium on area traffic, parking, noise, air quality and other factors. The vote enables the city to put the stadium issue to a binding vote of Santa Clara residents. The City Council early this morning instructed city staffers to prepare language for a measure for the June 8 ballot for voters to decide the stadium issue.
At the same time, a member of a Santa Clara civic group told the council they would at some point today unveil a voter initiative, backed by the 49ers, to put the issue on the June ballot separately. Former city councilman Pat Kolstad said the group, Santa Clarans for Economic Progress, would immediately begin gathering signatures to get the initiative on the ballot, arguing that such a measure would be tougher to challenge and delay before an election than a measure placed on the ballot by the council. City council members indicated they want to avoid dueling measures on the ballot.
"There would be no delay in finding out what the voters want in this deal," Kolstad told the council.
More than two dozen residents addressed the council, some wearing 49ers gear and backing a stadium, and others expressed concern about tens of thousands of fans descending on the region on Sundays and spoiling local neighborhoods. It remained possible late Tuesday that the council would put off a vote until its meeting next week.
The lawsuit relates to a city term sheet with the 49ers in the spring that sets out a host of conditions for constructing and operating the stadium, which would be built on a large parking lot next to Great America. The agreement provides for a package of $114 million in public contributions, as well as promises from the 49ers to cover any construction overruns on the $937 million project and any operating deficits once the stadium opens in 2014.
Santa Clara City Manager Jennifer Sparacino said she had not fully reviewed the lawsuit, but stressed that the term sheet with the 49ers is nonbinding on the city and called for compliance with environmental impact review laws as the project proceeds.
A spokesman for the 49ers declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying it is a matter between the city and the theme park owner. But the lawsuit could push the 49ers to follow through with a plan to go to the voters through an initiative, a move that would eliminate the need for environmental review and approval before the matter goes on the ballot and could short circuit legal challenges under state environmental laws.
In a letter sent to city officials and the 49ers this week, Cedar Fair's lawyers indicated they are trying to preserve their legal rights as negotiations with the city proceed. The park's owners have repeatedly warned that the potential impact on the park's business has not been taken into account and have asked the council to postpone consideration of the environmental impact report for at least another 30 days.
The council was also slated to consider a resolution to put the stadium issue on the June ballot for a citywide vote. Both the city and the 49ers have said the project will not go forward without approval from Santa Clara residents. The council may finalize that ballot measure, and what language would be placed before voters, on Dec. 15.
At the same time, the 49ers have told city officials they are considering an initiative to put the issue before the voters, instead of a council-backed ballot measure. Among other things, such a citizens' initiative would negate the need for an approved environmental impact report under California environmental laws; a ballot measure from the council requires an approved EIR. A "community-based group" would join the 49ers in the initiative push, according to a report from city officials.
Sparacino declined to comment on the possibility of the 49ers going with an initiative. Lisa Lang, a spokeswoman for the 49ers, said the team "is not prepared" to make any announcement on whether it intends to go the voters directly. Bill Bailey, treasurer of the anti-stadium group Santa Clara Plays Fair, expressed concern about the possible tactic.
"If the purpose is to get around (the environmental impact review), then that's dirty pool," he said Tuesday.
During Tuesday's meeting, Sparacino stressed that by approving the environmental impact report and date for a vote, the council was far from approving the stadium project. "By certifying the environmental impact report this evening, we still do not have a project that is approved," she told council members.