D.C. Asks Court to Let City Push Owners From Stadium Site

By David Nakamura and Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The District government has asked a Superior Court judge for permission to force property owners to vacate 14 acres of land near the Anacostia River by Feb. 7 so the city can begin construction of a baseball stadium, arguing that any delays could set back the project.

In a court filing late last week, city attorneys said construction must begin soon to complete the stadium by March 2008, as required in the agreement with Major League Baseball.

The land is near South Capitol Street and the Navy Yard in Southeast Washington. The city seized the titles to the properties through eminent domain in the fall, but the recent court motion is necessary to force out the owners.

Judge Joan Zeldon is in charge of the eminent domain cases, but she has not ruled on the recent motion. Property owners have until Friday to respond in court, and most are expected to object.

"If the March 1, 2008 deadline is to be met, and the District is to meet the obligations imposed upon it and avoid the significant penalties I am informed it may face for delay, then it must make every effort to adhere to and stay on the aggressive schedule we have established and minimize any delays," Thomas A. Engers, the stadium's construction manager, said in an affidavit attached to the court filing.

The city's action comes as private developers and Major League Baseball prepare to launch a major public relations offensive to respond to widespread criticism of the stadium deal. The campaign will kick off with several hundred thousand dollars' worth of advertisements that will begin airing today on local radio stations.

"Every sports fan knows The Moment -- when the game is on the line and the great ones step up and do something truly special. Jordan at the buzzer. Tiger sinking a putt. . . . Well, now the District is facing such a Moment," one ad starts out.

"In the coming days, our City Council will decide not only on the new baseball stadium, but also on our city's future. . . . So call your City Council. Tell them opportunities like this don't come often. Let's not let this one slip away."

The campaign, which is also expected to include newspaper ads and direct-mail pieces, is being paid for by the South Capitol Ballpark Coalition, a hastily assembled group that includes the Washington Nationals, private developers with an interest in the South Capitol area, the Greater Washington Board of Trade, builders, restaurateurs and the D.C. Convention and Tourism Corp. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) met with group members two weeks ago and asked them to fund the effort.

The campaign is aimed at persuading the D.C. Council to approve a stadium lease agreement, which is critical to the future of the project. Williams and his aides said they will submit the lease to the council by Friday so a vote can be scheduled for Feb. 7.

M. Roy Goldberg, an attorney for Eastern Trans-Waste, which operates a trash transfer station at the site, said the city's attempt to force out property owners is premature.

"They do not have a lease yet," Goldberg said. "They don't care what they do to our business, the uncertainty, the jobs that are there. They're playing with people's livelihoods. That's not very nice, and legally it is premature."

Council members have asked the mayor to ensure that costs are capped on the project, estimated at $667 million, and that Major League Baseball makes additional contributions. Williams is drafting a letter to say he can meet the council's demands, administration sources said.

Over the weekend, Williams and other city officials met with baseball representatives and Dennis W. Archer, the former mayor of Detroit who has been named by the American Arbitration Association to mediate the deadlock.

The city has offered 23 landowners at the stadium site a total of $98 million for their properties. Seventeen owners, however, including those who have some of the most expensive plots, have not accepted the offers and are fighting for more money in court. Several also are challenging the city's legal right to take the land, although none has been successful.

Even if the city succeeds in court, attorneys representing the landowners said city officials have told them that some owners might be able to remain on their properties beyond Feb. 7 because not all of the land will be needed immediately.

City officials have tried to work with the property owners to help them relocate, but the process has been slow. An asphalt plant is working with the city to move to a site at D.C. Village in Southwest, but Eastern Trans-Waste also wants to move to D.C. Village and has not received permission from the city, Goldberg said.

Once the city begins construction, the court fight could go on for months, or years, if property owners continue to try to get more money. If there is no settlement between the owners and the government, a jury will decide how much the city must pay. That could further raise the price of the stadium project, a possibility that worries some council members.

For example, the city offered Eastern Trans-Waste $8.7 million. Company owners responded, however, that the property is worth $14.3 million, and they asked for an additional $18 million if the company is unable to relocate and goes out of business.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company