UPDATE: As Stadium Rises, Battles Over Land Continue

Business owners displaced by the baseball stadium contend that the District's offering price for their land
Business owners displaced by the baseball stadium contend that the District's offering price for their land "is well below market value." (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
Sunday, March 4, 2007

Nearly a year ago, a D.C. judge ordered a group of small-business owners to abandon a 20-acre site in Southeast Washington to make way for the new Washington Nationals baseball stadium.

The business owners complied. But as construction of the $611 million ballpark complex proceeds rapidly near South Capitol Street and the Navy Yard, they and the city government are engaged in a protracted legal fight in Superior Court over a financial settlement for the land. The case is proceeding slowly, with the parties engaged in depositions and trials not likely to come until the fall, attorneys for the business owners said.

When the District announced plans to build the ballpark, city attorneys began negotiating with 23 property owners to buy their properties. A handful of owners agreed to sell, but the majority held out for more money, and the city seized their land through eminent domain.

The city offered $98 million for all the properties, including about $84 million for those being seized through legal actions. Judge Joan Zeldon agreed last year to transfer the land to the city so the stadium could move forward, but she allowed the business owners to continue their pursuit of additional money.

The businesses that are fighting include an asphalt plant, a trash transfer station and a bus garage. Collectively, the owners are seeking tens of millions of dollars more than the city offered, and the outcome of the negotiations or trials could drive up the cost of the stadium project.

"Our view is that our numbers are right and theirs are wrong," said M. Roy Goldberg, an attorney for the trash company. "The District has no basis whatsoever to support what it calls 'just compensation.' Their price per square foot is well below market value."

In the past several months, attorneys for the city and the businesses have deposed more than two dozen witnesses, including land appraisers, environmental experts and government officials. That process, the attorneys said, could continue into the summer.

After that, Zeldon has said, the parties must engage in court-sponsored mediation in hopes that they will reach a settlement and avoid a trial. If those efforts fail, each landowner's case will go to a separate jury trial, attorneys said.

Aside from the price of the land, also being contested is how much money the government is seeking to recoup from the business owners to pay for environmental rehabilitation. Although they were forced to vacate, the business owners are still legally responsible for paying for the work, legal analysts have said.

Most of the businesses have not yet found new locations. The asphalt plant is close to a lease at the former D.C. Village site in Southwest, but the trash company probably will not be able to find a suitable site in the city, Goldberg said.

"We're trying to get the case into trial," he said. "But the government wants more and more time."

-- David Nakamura

© 2007 The Washington Post Company