Cooke Officially Opens Md. Stadium ProcessBy Dan Beyers and Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 21, 1994; Page B01
Cooke submitted a site plan for a 78,600-seat stadium and requested a special exception to build it in an area that is zoned for industrial use.
It was the first time since Cooke announced his intention to build a stadium seven years ago that the 81-year-old team owner has filed a zoning request with government planners. Cooke gave up on earlier plans to build in Alexandria and the District before deciding on land near Laurel Race Course, about 15 miles northeast of the team's current field, Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.
"There has never been a question of my commitment to build the new Redskins Stadium in Laurel, Md.," Cooke said in a statement released through a spokesman. "Our goal remains the same: to open the stadium there for the 1996 season."
The application sets the stage for major haggling between the Redskins and neighbors of the 120-acre site on issues that ultimately will determine whether fans drive to the game or take public transportation, whether neighbors will see the stadium from their windows, how long people will sit in traffic and where rainwater will go.
The site plan submitted yesterday details everything from the size of parking spaces to the location of trees. Cooke is requesting concessions from the county that would include drastically reducing the required number of parking spaces and cutting the size of those spaces by at least a foot.
Redskins officials plan to limit parking to 20,077 spaces, which would be 18,800 fewer spots than required under county rules and would offer enough parking for 300 buses and cars carrying an average of 3.5 fans. Cooke's plan is designed to encourage fans to use car pools, buses or trains to get to games.
Yesterday's application launches Cooke's project managers into an approval process that will take at least eight months and probably more than a year, which could jeopardize his hopes for a 1996 kickoff in a new stadium. County officials now will begin to evaluate whether the stadium can be built and the merits of the details Cooke is proposing.
Opponents of the stadium, mostly neighbors, have vowed to contest Cooke at every turn. They have written letters to state and federal regulatory agencies, demanding that full-scale environmental impact studies be commenced. And they have begun fund-raising efforts to mount a court challenge should the county approve the plans.
Opponent Nicholas Ruggiero said Cooke's request to slice the number of parking spaces in half is evidence that the Laurel site is the wrong place for the football stadium.
"The fact that they can't meet the county's requirement for the number of spaces and that they have to shrink the size of the spaces to come up with the number they have shows that the site is unsuitable," Ruggiero said.
The proposal involves an inch-thick traffic study and 20 pages of drawings. It is both broad and detailed, asking for nine exemptions -- technically variances -- from certain county zoning rules.
"We've never gotten this far into the process before," said Walter E. Lynch, project manager for Cooke.
However, Ruggiero said Lynch's request for three major variances also shows that there are more changes to the project than Cooke has let on.
"They said they were going to be any old developer and didn't want any special treatment," Ruggiero said.
The site plan is expected to reach a zoning hearing officer in June. If the proposal is approved by the hearing officer, Cooke then will submit an extensive application for a building permit.
To win the zoning exception he needs, Cooke must demonstrate that the project will not prove "detrimental to the public health, safety and welfare." Cooke is pushing a site plan that has reduced parking and other adjustments to keep the privately financed facility within his budget. The county, on the other hand, wants to protect the interest of its residents and the Laurel community.
Cooke is trying to hold the cost of traffic improvements to less than $55 million, so that any improvement can be financed with county revenue bonds. The bonds would be paid off using a tax on tickets.
However, a state study estimated that it would cost as much as $186 million to eliminate all stadium-related traffic congestion.
Residents will review the plan to make their own estimate of costs, said Jean Mignon, president of an ad hoc protest group calling itself Citizens Against the Stadium -- 2, named for a similar group in Alexandria. "Up to now, it's been like fighting a shadow."
Stadium planners are working against Cooke's self-imposed deadline that the stadium be ready for the 1996 season. He's already spent several million dollars hiring a lineup of lawyers, specialists and lobbyists to carry the ball for him through the Anne Arundel County zoning process.
No fewer than two zoning lawyers, two traffic engineering firms, two environmental firms, an acoustical engineer and seven other engineering and architectural firms have been involved in drafting plans to date. Cooke also hired one of the state's most politically connected law firms, Rifken, Evans, Silver and Rozner, to smooth the stadium's path through state politics.
Opponents hold out hope that Cooke will change his mind about the project before a shovel of dirt is ever turned. They note that he has yet to take ownership of the land he has agreed to buy from race track owner Joe DeFrancis. And many believe Cooke would quickly lose his enthusiasm for Laurel if Baltimore is successful in luring a National Football League franchise to the north.
A Laurel stadium would allow Cooke an opportunity to market his team to fans in Washington and Baltimore, helping him to sell 331 lucrative skyboxes and 15,000 club seats. The Redskins' current home at the 55,683-seat RFK Stadium in the District lacks those amenities.
Cooke also must prove that the stadium would "be no more objectionable with regard to noise, fumes, vibration, or light to nearby properties" than other development currently permitted on the site.
According to the county's zoning code, permitted uses include everything from manufacturing plants to warehouses to heliports.
Cooke's contention is that a stadium will be used no more than 18 times a year, creating far less a burden on neighboring communities than a factory or office used every day. Stadium planners are offering no guarantees for exactly how many dates the stadium might be used. But they said they are taking pains to make sure that its use does not pose a problem to neighbors.
Stadium plans, for instance, call for a police substation to be established on the site and for permanent restroom facilities to be erected in the parking lot, to keep fans out of surrounding wooded areas.
Opponents and supporters expect much of the debate over the stadium project to focus on game-day traffic.
Cooke's traffic studies assume that three or four people will travel to the game in each vehicle. An additional 1,800 will travel by MARC train and several thousand in 300 charter buses, the studies assume.
Opponents worry that with only 20,200 spaces for 78,600 fans, people would be forced to park on road shoulders, on lawns and in driveways. Cooke's planners said they are working with the Anne Arundel Police Department to create a parking enforcement team for games.