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Court Holds Up D.C. Bid for Private Land
Judge Wants Baseball Lease Pact Before Giving Land for Stadium

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 25, 2006

A D.C. Superior Court judge said yesterday that she will wait until the District and Major League Baseball agree on a stadium lease before granting the city government possession of 12 acres of privately held land needed for the project.

Judge Joan Zeldon said during a hearing that she is ready to give the city the land but wants to be sure the stadium will be built before signing the order.

The D.C. Council has approved the ballpark lease conditioned upon MLB accepting a $611 million spending limit on public funds. Baseball officials, who were given a March 6 deadline by the council to endorse the deal, have expressed concerns about the spending cap.

"If Major League Baseball approves the lease, and if the sale of [construction] bonds goes forward, I will promptly sign the order of possession," Zeldon said to more than two dozen attorneys for the city and landowners. "Yes, I am waiting. This case has a number of parties who have rights, and I have to be equitable in my responsibility."

The District plans to build the stadium near South Capitol Street and the Navy Yard, along the Anacostia River, on about 20 acres in Southeast Washington. Six of 23 owners who held about 14 of the acres agreed to sell their properties to the city last fall. The District seized the titles to the other 17 properties through eminent domain proceedings in October.

However, the city still needs an order from Zeldon to take full possession of about 15 properties whose owners have declined to make way for the government. Many still occupy the properties and are continuing to operate their businesses in the mostly industrial area, including a trash transfer station, an asphalt plant, a car repair shop and adult-oriented businesses.

District attorneys had sought to win possession of the properties by Feb. 7 in an effort to keep the project on schedule and to complete construction by March 2008, which is required under the stadium agreement with MLB.

City officials said they were encouraged by Zeldon's statements, because the judge indicated there were no major legal barriers to granting the city possession of the properties under eminent domain law.

"The judge indicated she wants to grant possession as soon as possible," said Claude Bailey, an attorney for the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission. "I hope MLB will be encouraged to sign the lease."

Baseball officials have declined to say whether they will endorse the stadium spending cap, although they continue to talk with Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and his aides.

Under the council's legislation, all stadium costs in excess of $611 million, excluding costs associated with buying land, would be paid by the Washington Nationals' owner, the federal government or private sources.

MLB officials have made it clear that they will not allow the team owner to be stuck paying for cost overruns. MLB is in the process of selecting an ownership group for the Nationals and expects to earn $450 million for the franchise, in large part because the initial stadium agreement said the District would cover all cost overruns.

In response, Williams administration officials have sought to assure MLB that there are several sources of revenue that could cover the overruns and that the team owner would not be asked to pay.

"They should not be concerned in any way that they'll be on the hook for this," Vince Morris, a spokesman for Williams, said yesterday.

The talks have centered on money that would be paid by developers, city officials said, even though the council's spending cap legislation forbids revenue earned by the city from development rights to be used for stadium construction.

Meanwhile, city and MLB officials are growing increasingly concerned about the ability of construction companies to finish the stadium in time for opening day of the 2008 season. Some city officials have said privately that the stadium may not open until the All-Star Game weekend in July 2008.

Major construction work cannot begin until the city takes possession of the land and D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi issues construction bonds on Wall Street. Gandhi, who also is waiting for MLB to endorse the spending cap, has said that it could take six weeks to complete the bonds sale.

Yesterday's hearing was full of so many lawyers representing different interests -- the landowners, the city, the sports commission -- that Zeldon had trouble keeping everyone straight.

"This will be a far more challenging road than even I imagined," Zeldon said at one point.

Lawyers from the D.C. Office of the Attorney General argued that the city needs the land as soon as possible to begin clearing the site and preparing for construction of the ballpark.

The city has offered a total of $98 million for all of the properties, including about $84 million for the ones being seized through eminent domain. Most of the property owners are fighting for more money, and those cases will continue even after the city takes possession of the properties and begins construction.

Zeldon ordered lawyers representing the trash transfer station and the adult-oriented businesses, along with city lawyers, to meet over the next two weeks with a court mediator. Those businesses have argued that they should not be expected to move because the city has not helped them relocate in the District, which is difficult because of zoning requirements.

M. Roy Goldberg, a lawyer who represents the trash transfer station, said, "That's another issue that could hold everything up."

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