The District government has told landowners at the site of the proposed baseball stadium that they must vacate their properties by Feb. 3 so that the city can begin construction in March.
The date marks a change to the timeline that city officials previously had set to take total control of the 20 acres along the Anacostia River, near South Capitol Street and the Navy Yard.
Officials had said they wanted the land by Dec. 31 so they would have time to raze the buildings and address any environmental problems by March 1. So far, contractors hired by the city have found no major environmental problems after conducting tests in public areas on the site. But the city has been barred by private property owners from doing tests on their land, so some uncertainty remains.
The District faces a tight construction schedule to complete the $535 million stadium project by March 2008, as required in its agreement with Major League Baseball.
Mayoral spokesman Vince Morris said the city remains on track to meet that deadline.
"When you're dealing with a timetable measured in years, a couple days one way or another is not essential," Morris said. "The bigger goal is to be moving in the right direction."
The completion date, he added, "has not changed, absolutely not from our standpoint."
Seven landowners have agreed to sell to the city, for a total of $14 million. The District filed an eminent domain suit last month in D.C. Superior Court against the 16 remaining property owners, depositing $84 million in offers in a court-controlled trust.
Several owners filed their counterarguments in court this week. Some are contesting the city's legal right to the land, some are challenging the amount of money the city is offering for the properties and some are fighting on both fronts.
Judge Joan Zeldon, who has jurisdiction in the eminent domain case, has scheduled a status hearing for Feb. 24. But attorneys for one landowner have requested a hearing by Feb. 3, because that is the date on which the city has said it will take control of the properties. Zeldon has not ruled on that request.
Eastern Trans-Waste, a Maryland-based company that owns a trash-transfer station on the site, was offered $8.7 million by the city. But the company said in its court filing that the offer is too low and that city officials have failed to provide sufficient help in relocating the business to another site in the District.
Company officials have said in a letter to the District that they expect a sale price of $14.3 million for the property, plus $18 million if the firm is forced out of business. By law, the city is required to help relocate people or businesses it displaces.
Southeast Land Development Associates, which owns about 67,000 square feet leased to Metro for bus parking, argued in its court filing that the city is improperly taking the land. The city "has failed to determine and pay just compensation for the Property," and thus has no legal right to take the land under terms of the council's financing legislation, the company stated.
Land-use lawyers who are not involved in the case have said that the court will allow the city to take control of the property as long as it can show that the stadium will serve a legitimate public purpose. Although some argue that a ballpark is a private project for Major League Baseball, D.C. officials said the stadium will lead to economic revitalization that could create significant tax revenue.
If the city is successful in taking the land, legal battles still could drag on for months, even years, to determine how much the city would ultimately pay for it, the land-use lawyers said. Those court battles would not delay construction. But the city has no money remaining for land in the stadium project's budget, meaning that if any of the property owners are successful in getting more money, the costs would have to come from another source.