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Stadium Property Owners Balking

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By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 22, 2005

Owners of a trash-transfer company whose property the District government wants to buy to make way for a baseball stadium are demanding nearly $24 million more than the city is offering,setting up one in a series of potential court battles over land for the project along the Anacostia River.

The city gave the 23 property owners on the site, near South Capitol Street and the Navy Yard in Southeast, until yesterday to accept offers that total $97 million. Only one owner agreed to sell.

To gain control of the land for the $535 million stadium project, the D.C. attorney general's office will go to D.C. Superior Court as early as Monday to begin eminent domain proceedings to seize the properties that have not been sold.

By going to court, D.C. officials plan to control the entire 21-acre stadium site within 90 days, they said. That will put them on schedule to clear the land, remediate minor environmental contamination and complete the Washington Nationals' ballpark by Major League Baseball's March 2008 deadline.

Vince Morris, a spokesman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), confirmed that only one property owner had agreed to sell by 5 p.m. yesterday. He declined to disclose the name of that owner. But F. Russell Hines, executive vice president of Monument Realty, which owns a plot assessed by the city at $4.4 million, said his company has told the city it will sell the land in exchange for the ability to build more densely on land Monument owns across the street.

The city has offered $8.7 million to buy a 53,000-square-foot site from the owners of the trash-transfer station, Eastern Trans-Waste, which has operated at 1315 First St. SE since 1992. But in a letter, company officials contended that the District is not helping them relocate and set the sale price at $14.3 million for the property, plus $18 million if the firm is forced out of business. By law, the city is required to help relocate people or businesses it displaces.

"We're pretty upset," said M. Roy Goldberg, an attorney who represents the company. The District "hasn't done anything for us. Not a thing. They have obligations. . . . We've pointed out that if they do not comply with the obligations, their entire attempt to take [the land] may be enjoined."

The city is facing myriad issues with the remaining properties, which include an asphalt company that needs altered zoning regulations to relocate, adult-oriented businesses whose owner fears he won't be welcome elsewhere and a rowhouse whose owner lives there.

"We always knew we would negotiate with some but others might resist," Morris said. "But we've made offers that are more than fair."

The District's offer to purchase all the land for $97 million is far more than the $33 million at which the same properties were assessed for tax purposes just two years ago. However, many owners said they will fight for more money, because neighbors just beyond the ballpark site have received bigger payments from private developers.

Once the District begins eminent domain proceedings, the legal battles could drag on for months, even years, to determine how much the city will ultimately pay for the land, according to land use lawyers. The D.C. Council set a cap of $165 million for land, infrastructure and environmental cleanup.

Meanwhile, under the "quick take" provision in the eminent domain law, the District will assume title to the properties once it deposits the money into a court-controlled account. Unless a judge stops the action on constitutional grounds, owners will have 90 days to vacate, and a jury eventually will determine the sale price unless an agreement is reached.

As long as the city can show that the stadium will serve a significant public purpose, the court will allow the takeover, land use lawyers said. Although some activists argue that a ballpark is a private project for Major League Baseball, D.C. officials said the stadium will lead to economic revitalization that could create significant tax revenue.

Several landowners said they are frustrated that the city has not provided them with background material that explains how the District conducted its appraisals. Owners said they were told that the city would turn over the material only if the owners agreed not to use the information in court.

An attorney for Robert Siegel, who owns several adult-oriented businesses, said Siegel will fight to stay on the property because the city has not found his businesses a new location.

"My guess is we're not going to reach agreement and we'll fight," said Dale Cooter, a lawyer representing Siegel. The city offered Siegel $7 million for the properties.

D.C. officials dispute the contention that they have not helped owners try to relocate, noting that the city petitioned the Zoning Commission to allow the asphalt plant to be relocated at D.C. Village. The request is pending.

Some owners said they were eager to avoid a court confrontation.

"I'm trying to work out an agreement," said Kenneth Wyban, who was offered $1.2 million for his five-bedroom rowhouse. "They're still a little low, but I'm pleased the city is now dealing with me in good faith."

Guest Services, a hospitality company based in Fairfax, owns a huge warehouse on the ballpark site that holds paddle boats that are used in the Tidal Basin. Additional warehouse space is rented to the Architect of the Capitol, a federal agency.

The city offered Guest Services $13.8 million, but the company has questions, Vice President Robin Thurman said.

"We're trying to be amenable," said Thurman, who added that her company is interested in bidding on the concessions contract at the new stadium.

For Richard Biggs, whose family has owned a plot on the site since the 1920s and rents it to an Aamco shop, the process is complicated enough that he hired an attorney and real estate agent to appraise the property, which the city valued at $3.2 million.

"I don't have time to handle it," said Biggs, who operates a Maryland farm. "I'm knee-deep in pumpkins and apples."

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