Starting Nov. 14, Washington Redskins fans will again be able to walk to FedEx Field, after a Prince George's County panel last night lifted restrictions on pedestrian access that had been in place for most of four years.
The Board of Administrative Appeals decided that the county Department of Public Works and Transportation did not have authority to close five roads around the stadium and prevent pedestrians from walking to games. County and team officials have argued that closing roads and sidewalks was necessary to protect fans crossing busy intersections, but board Chairman Raymond Krasnick said that did not make the policy legal.
"We couldn't find a legal precedent for it," Krasnick said. "Certainly safety was a factor, but we needed to find that the county had the legal authority to do it."
County code indicates that road closures are permitted during road construction or utility work but does not explicitly allow them for public safety issues, according to the board.
County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) said that he supported the board's decision and that the county would not appeal.
"I agree that citizens should have a right to walk to the stadium," he said. "We'll work with the Redskins to ensure that people can get to the stadium safely." Johnson said that he spoke Tuesday with Redskins officials and that they said they would cooperate with such a decision.
Yesterday's action opens Redskins Road, a short stretch that before the ban commonly was used by fans who parked free at Landover Mall. Garrett A. Morgan Boulevard, FedEx Way, Arena Drive and Hill Oaks Road also will be opened in time for the game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
"I can't believe this. I'm just in awe," said Peggy Feltman, a longtime season ticket holder from Silver Spring who sued the county over the pedestrian restrictions. "I will be walking down Redskins Road leading the crowd . . . with a banner."
The county will have to spend additional money to deploy more officers or develop another plan to protect fans, said Vernon Herron, the county's director of public safety. Johnson said the road closures allowed authorities to sweep the premises with bomb-sniffing dogs and other sensors before games.
"That is a little concern for us. We're going to try to work out some logistics that we can still protect the citizens that come to the games," Johnson said.
The board said that in the interest of safety, the roads would remain closed for Sunday's game.
"Logistically, to change something this quickly, it would be a nightmare," said Jim Keary, a county spokesman.
The pedestrian restrictions that began four years ago were overturned briefly last year by a Circuit Court judge who ruled that the policy had been made without public notice and violated Maryland's open meetings law. Fans walked to the stadium without incident for the final Redskins game last year against the Philadelphia Eagles. But after a public hearing, the Department of Public Works and Transportation reauthorized the policy in June, prompting the appeal.
During two days of testimony last month, a stream of police and county officials argued that keeping pedestrians off Redskins Road with metal barricades and stadium security was for their own protection. Since the stadium opened in 1997, two pedestrians have been killed and 12 injured after being hit by cars on roads around the stadium, police said. The post-game crowds that flooded down Redskins Road toward Landover Mall were too much for police to handle, said Cpl. Michael Rose of Prince George's County police.
"They were overflowing into the roadway . . . [and] oftentimes would not listen to the police officers," Rose said last month.
But some disgruntled fans saw the restrictions as a way to discourage free parking and funnel them into distant lots operated by the Redskins that charge $25. Fans have also complained about long delays waiting for shuttle buses from these lots. They have suggested that the county could erect temporary fencing or use more officers to control crowds. After the decision last night, they were ready to get walking.
"The public road deserves to be open for the public. That's the bottom line," said Jeremy Mobutu, 22, a relative of Feltman's who was involved in the lawsuit. "And when it is reopened, I'll be on it."