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Stadium Plan Gets Qualified Approval

By Dan Beyers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 12, 1994; Page B01

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Both sides walked away smiling yesterday from the first day of zoning hearings on the Washington Redskins' proposed stadium in Laurel.

While supporters were delighted that Anne Arundel County planners offered a qualified endorsement of the stadium, opponents took heart that the planners said the jury was still out on potential problems with traffic, light and noise.

Kevin Dooley, the county's senior planner, said the county's review of the proposed $160 million stadium was incomplete because it had not received all the information it had requested from Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke.

"At this point, we can't say if {the proposed stadium} meets the {county's} requirements or not," Dooley said, but Cooke "is certainly capable of meeting the requirements."

The zoning hearing at Meade Senior High School near Laurel marked Cooke's third attempt in seven years to find a location for building his 78,600-seat stadium. The 81-year-old multimillionaire backed away from plans to build in the District and Alexandria after running into bureaucratic and political obstacles.

But his apparent haste in trying to win approval from Anne Arundel County -- he wants to open his stadium by the 1996 season -- brought a rebuke from the administrative hearing officer, who complained that amendments to the project's site plan were being submitted as late as last Friday.

"Zoning hearings are not heard in the abstract," said Robert C. Wilcox, the hearing officer. "I'm not thrilled with all this last-minute jockeying around... . Perhaps this hearing was premature."

Dooley gave Wilcox a six-page report stating that county planners can support the special exception Cooke is seeking but only if Cooke demonstrates that his consultants' traffic studies are valid and submits studies showing that noise and light from the stadium will be at acceptable levels.

Cooke is seeking a special exception to place the stadium on a 382-acre tract adjacent to the Laurel Race Course that is generally zoned for industrial use. He also needs variances to allow his plan to deviate from county parking and landscaping requirements.

Thomas Dernoga, an attorney for opponents of the project, asked Wilcox to delay the proceedings so that residents could examine the amendments to Cooke's site plan more closely. "It's tantamount to an unfair proceeding," he said.

Wilcox denied the request but said he was irritated at having so little information from the county on which to base his decision. "I'm left in a vacuum," he said.

About 230 people turned out for the first day of what county officials said could be a two- to three-week proceeding. Most wore buttons declaring their allegiance for or against the stadium.

"If the county can't take a definite position, then he {Wilcox} will have to come down on the opponents' side," said stadium opponent Richard Russell, 47, a surveyor from Maryland City who took time off to attend the daylong hearing with his 17-year-old daughter, Kerry.

Wendy West, 25, a teacher who came wearing a Redskins T-shirt, was pleased with the county's qualified backing. "Hopefully it will give the project a boost," she said.

Walter E. Lynch, project manager for the stadium, said he was not bothered by the hearing officer's comments.

"The bottom line is the endorsement from the county," Lynch said.

The zoning hearing appeared to be part trial, part town meeting. Cooke's attorneys and specialists sat at one side of the stage in the high school auditorium; attorneys for the opponents sat on the other side. Wilcox, who must approve, deny or set conditions on the project, sat elevated at a table between them.

Dooley testified that the county supports Cooke's plans to limit parking at the stadium to about one space for every four seats in order to curb traffic, but he said the county had no way to verify Cooke's projections for the number of fans who would arrive by car pool, bus or commuter train.

"We are talking about a fairly unique operation," Dooley said.

Martin J. Wells, Cooke's traffic consultant, said the Redskins' traffic projections are based on a survey he did of 24 of the 26 National Football League stadiums to gather data on how they manage traffic.

"The county's problem is that they would like to see 200 stadiums {surveyed}," Wells said.

Cooke's traffic estimates are critical to his desire to keep road improvement costs under $25 million. A consultant to the State Highway Administration estimated they would cost $52 million to $186 million.

County officials said negotiations are underway among Montgomery, Prince George's, Howard and Anne Arundel counties and the State highway administration over what improvements ultimately will be required. The county report made no reference to those negotiations, recommending only that local roads be improved before the stadium opens.

Dooley said the county had not received the Redskins' studies on the noise and light to be generated by the stadium, so he could not comment on whether the project would meet county requirements. He also said the county received a draft of an alternative stadium site plan on Friday, too late to thoroughly examine it.

The site plan will form the basis for the county to approve or deny the special exception. It is up to Wilcox to decide whether Cooke meets the requirements for a special exception, a finding that either side can appeal to the county's Board of Appeals and ultimately to Circuit Court.

The planners recommended that Wilcox deny Cooke's request to reduce the required width of parking spaces, noting that fans using car pools, large automobiles or vans might find it tough to negotiate the eight-foot spaces that Cooke is seeking.

The report also disagreed with Cooke's request to eliminate parking lot landscaping. Tree-lined islands inside the parking lot would help direct cars in and out and prevent people from trying to find their own route, creating chaotic traffic conditions, the report said.

County planners also asked Wilcox to set 20 conditions on his approval, including one that would require local road work to be done before the stadium opens.

Another of the conditions would bar events drawing more than 15,000 people from being held simultaneously at the stadium and Laurel Race Course.

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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