Judge rejects case challenging Seattle arena deal

Updated: February 22, 2013, 9:07 PM ET
Associated Press

SEATTLE -- A Washington state judge rejected a lawsuit Friday aimed at undoing a deal to build a new professional basketball and hockey arena in Seattle -- a key part of plans to bring the NBA back to town.

King County Superior Court Judge Douglass North held that the agreement between the city of Seattle, King County and an investment group led by hedge fund manager Chris Hansen does not violate state environmental law.

"This is a big win in our work to bring the Sonics home to Seattle," Mayor Mike McGinn said in a written statement.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union is concerned that adding a third stadium to the area south of downtown would choke freight traffic and cost jobs. The union's Local 19, representing workers at the Port of Seattle, sued, saying an environmental review should have preceded any agreement.

The judge disagreed. He said the agreement technically set out a framework for a future deal, but didn't commit the city or King County to building an arena south of downtown.

"There isn't a binding decision here," North said.

The "memorandum of understanding" signed last year sets out the parameters of a deal to build the $490 million arena. Lawyers for the union said that created irreversible momentum toward construction, and therefore the environmental study was required ahead of time, union lawyer David Mann said in asking the judge to invalidate the agreement.

"This case is not about whether the Sonics should or are returning to Seattle," Mann said. "What the case is about is whether the city council, the mayor, the county council and executive went too far."

The NBA's Supersonics played in Seattle from 1979 to 2008 before its new owners moved the team to Oklahoma City and renamed it the Thunder.

Hansen's group, which includes Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer, has reached a deal to buy the Sacramento Kings from the Maloof family and move the team to Seattle, but it still needs approval from the NBA. Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson has been trying to put together a rival investment group to keep the team.

The judge expressed skepticism from the beginning about the union's arguments, noting -- as lawyers for Hansen, Seattle and King County did -- that the agreement does not actually commit the city and county to building an arena south of downtown, and that an environmental review will be done before any such commitment is made. State law requires environmental reviews "before an agency commits to a particular course of action."

Another lawyer for the union, Peter Goldman, described the promise of a future environmental review as a "sham," saying that by the time a review is completed, the Sonics could be back in Seattle, playing at KeyArena in anticipation of a new arena being built.

No city government is going to reject the building of the arena south of downtown at that point, he argued.

Mann said that traffic is already so bad in the area -- especially when the Seattle Mariners play -- that it's hard for longshoremen to get to work on time.

"If they're late and port operations are hung up, that's a blow to the port," he said.

The memorandum of understanding calls for Hansen's group to spend $40 million on improving traffic and freight mobility in the area.

The union's lawyers said they had not decided whether to appeal, but they do plan to participate in the environmental review in an effort to block the arena from being built south of downtown.

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