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Cooke's Stadium Blocked in Md.

By Dan Beyers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 13, 1994; Page A01

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An Anne Arundel County hearing officer rejected the Washington Redskins' plan for a new football stadium near Laurel yesterday, prompting frustrated team owner Jack Kent Cooke to call D.C. mayoral candidate Marion Barry about keeping the team in town after all.

The idea of staying home after a more than six-year stadium site search through the District, Virginia and Maryland came after the zoning official said the team had "vastly understated" how many cars would converge on the 78,600-seat facility on game days.

"This was not a close case," Administrative Hearing Officer Robert C. Wilcox wrote in his 64-page opinion. "Simply stated, the property is too small for the proposed use."

Cooke's attorneys immediately filed papers to appeal Wilcox's ruling with the county's Board of Appeals, calling the decision "arbitrary and capricious and against the weight of the law and the evidence presented."

"Wilcox's decision provides us with a road map to cure the faults he envisions," Cooke said in a news release. "We intend vigorously to pursue our object of building the Redskins new stadium in Anne Arundel County, Md."

But beyond a prepared statement, Cooke would not elaborate on his reaction to the decision. After complaining about his health in a telephone conversation, a sanguine Cooke said he had nothing to add: "N-O-T-H-I-N-G."

However, sources close to the club said the team probably will hedge its bets by studying alternative sites, including a possible new stadium in the District.

Barry, who won the Democratic mayoral nomination in an impressive political comeback in the September primary, said he told Cooke he would do whatever had to be done to keep the Redskins in the District.

Wilcox's decision was the latest of several setbacks for major sports and entertainment projects in the region.

The Walt Disney Co. announced last month that it was giving up on plans to build a history-based theme park near Haymarket after opposition surfaced among residents and historians. Only months earlier, voters in Loudoun County turned down a proposal for a racetrack. And yesterday, Virginia officials decided that the state's only horse track will be built south of Richmond -- not in Prince William County.

Cooke has spent more than six years trying to move his team out of the 55,683-seat Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium -- the National Football League's smallest venue -- and into a larger stadium outfitted with lucrative skyboxes.

In December, he announced that he wanted to privately finance a $160 million stadium next to Laurel Race Course, setting in motion a six-week zoning hearing during the summer that featured 190 witnesses and 240 exhibits.

Cooke sought a special zoning exception to build on 382 acres of land mostly zoned for industrial park use. He also requested variances from county regulations to reduce the number and size of parking spaces and the amount of landscaping.

In his ruling, Wilcox zeroed in on the Redskins' request to construct 20,077 parking spaces, about one for every four fans. Wilcox said the request was based on an unrealistic assumption that stadium-bound cars would carry an average of 3.5 fans.

The Redskins argued that several stadiums across the country had achieved a car-pool rate of 3.5 or higher. But Wilcox said the team's survey of other stadiums was "highly selective and self-serving."

Most other stadiums, he said, had achieved much lower car-pool rates. Based on more comprehensive surveys, he said a more realistic estimate is three ticket holders a car. At that rate, the roads would have to carry 4,000 more cars and the parking lots would have to have 4,000 more spaces.

Changing that one assumption, Wilcox said, means the Redskins cannot meet the standard set by a county law requiring all development to be served by acceptable roads. The Redskins already were within 250 cars of exceeding the law's requirements based on the team's own traffic studies, he said.

"The requirements of this law are fixed, clear and unforgiving," Wilcox wrote. "They cannot be met under the current proposal. Therefore, the proposed use is, as a matter of law, detrimental to the public health, safety and welfare and must be denied."

Walter E. Lynch, project manager for the stadium, said the team will study whether additional road improvements can be made to accommodate a car-pool rate of three persons. However, he expressed disappointment that Wilcox refused to consider the team's proposal to bar fans from games unless they showed proof in the form of a computer-coded entry pass that they had parked in a stadium lot or had arrived by bus or commuter train.

"That was our guarantee: to achieve the {car-pool rate of} 3.5," he said.

But Wilcox said in his ruling that he ignored the proposal because it was not offered until the last day of the six-week hearing.

"At the very least, the proposal should have been submitted to the county's traffic experts and planners for study and comment prior to the hearing," he wrote. "This was not done. Therefore, it will not be considered now."

Opponents of the stadium, who included many residents in neighborhoods surrounding the site, applauded Wilcox's decision but expressed concern that he did not rule on many other issues such as the noise and light it would generate.

"He basically decided this case on one issue and didn't answer a lot of other questions," said Thomas Dernoga, an attorney for a group of residents who opposed the stadium. "We think he could have rejected the stadium for a lot of reasons. But how disappointed can I be? No one over here is crying."

The seven-member Board of Appeals is not expected to schedule a hearing on Cooke's appeal for at least 30 days, and then any hearing must be advertised 21 days in advance, according to the board's counsel, Tyson Bennett.

That schedule puts any hearing date well beyond the November elections, which adds uncertainty to the board's schedule and its very makeup. Board members are appointed by the County Council, and all council seats are up for election Nov. 8.

Sources close to the club said the team probably wants to assess the results of the election before deciding whether to move forward in Laurel or seriously examine other sites.

In addition to interest from District officials, Virginia Gov. George Allen, son and namesake of a former Redskins coach, has consistently shown interest in talking to Cooke about alternate sites in his state.

But Cooke may just as likely wait and see what the elections bring in Maryland. Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who has been candid about his concern that the project would block a pro football franchise from relocating to Baltimore, is leaving office when his term ends early next year. Also stepping down is Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall, who offered only lukewarm support for the project.

Wilcox, in his conclusion, said he was "unmoved by the apocalyptic and exaggerated claims of some opposition groups," who said residents would become prisoners in their own homes on game days.

But he also criticized the Redskins for engaging in "semantic overkill. There was no evidence to support promised (tax) riches, significant employment opportunities or widespread business development. Economic impact studies were noticeably absent. ..."

"In sum, the impact of the Laurel (Redskins) Stadium would not be as bad as predicted nor as good as promised. Mercifully," he concluded, "this hearing officer is relieved of the task of making these subjective judgments."

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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