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Land Buying For Stadium Can Proceed

By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 6, 2005

A federal judge yesterday declined to issue an emergency 30-day injunction that would have stopped the District from purchasing or taking 33 properties it needs to build a baseball stadium in Southeast Washington.

U.S. District Judge Richard W. Roberts said the three property owners seeking the injunction failed to show that they would be irreparably harmed if the city was allowed to proceed in trying to buy the parcels required for the stadium project. He said the group also failed to convince him that it would prevail in its lawsuit, which alleges that the city's efforts to acquire the property are illegal.

"The loss of property is easily compensated by monetary damages," Roberts said. "Clearly, the city council has concluded a stadium is in the public interest. . . . The public interest is not served by blocking the city's effort to build the stadium."

The judge's decision means that the District can continue working to meet its deadline, under an agreement with Major League Baseball, to obtain the 33 properties by the end of the year. His ruling also suggested that it would be futile for the property owners to pursue the case.

The plaintiffs argued that the District was violating a city law that places a $165 million cap on the amount that the city can spend for land acquisition, infrastructure and environmental remediation for the stadium project. They contended that land acquisition estimates by Natwar M. Gandhi, the District's chief financial officer, were too low because the city failed to do individual property appraisals as required by the legislation.

But the judge also chided the District during yesterday's two-hour hearing, saying it had not explained to the owners the city's timetable for trying to obtain their property. The owners said they feared that they would get a city offer with no warning and have only 24 hours to accept it or face condemnation. If the city and an owner do not reach agreement on a purchase price, the city can take the land through eminent-domain proceedings.

"Tell me what's going on here. Is it true that the District has not let the owners know the time schedule?" Roberts asked. "At the minimum, can you tell them that in the next [several] days, there won't be any forced taking?"

Daniel Rezneck, an attorney with the D.C. attorney general's office, told the judge that he had not directly communicated a schedule to the owners but that the city plans to have a 30-day negotiating period over purchase prices. City officials said this year that they planned to submit purchase offers to owners in July, and more recently said they would submit offers this month.

"Nothing's going to happen to these people in the next 30 days," Rezneck said.

Rezneck declined to comment after the hearing, as did two of the property owners and their attorney, Barry M. Hartman.

The other property owner in the lawsuit, retired military officer Ken Wyban, said he was "very disappointed" with the judge's decision. He said he did not now expect to pursue the case.

"I can't afford this," he said. "I'll probably make a lot of money selling . . . but the city is making a lot more off of us than we will."

He called it a shame that council Chairman Linda W. Cropp's effort to cap costs at $165 million was not enforceable. Now, Wyban said, city taxpayers will have to pay for an unduly expensive project.

"I'd tell other property owners to make the best deal [they] can," he said. "The city seems to have this whole thing bottled up."

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