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Commanders acquire right to buy 200 acres in Va. for potential new stadium

The Washington Commanders are obligated to play their home games at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., through 2027. They've spent the past several years exploring possible sites for a new stadium in Virginia, Maryland and in the District. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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The Washington Commanders recently acquired the right to purchase land in Woodbridge, Va., as a potential site for its new stadium, state Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax) said he was told Monday by a lobbyist for the team.

Earlier, a person familiar with the team’s plans said the Commanders had actually purchased the land. But Surovell, whose district includes the potential site in Prince William, said one of the team’s Richmond-based lobbyists called him Monday after ESPN broke news of a deal and told him the team had not yet bought the land in Woodbridge, near Potomac Mills. The team has an option-to-purchase agreement to buy it, Surovell said.

A person familiar with the team’s venue plans said the deal was an option to purchase about 200 acres of land for about $100 million.

If the Commanders build a stadium in Woodbridge, it would be about 23 miles from the U.S. Capitol building. This would be nearly double the 11-mile distance from the U.S. Capitol to the team’s current stadium, FedEx Field in Landover, Md., and the third-farthest distance from a city center to a stadium in the National Football League behind San Francisco (42 miles) and New England (28).

A Commanders spokesman declined to comment Monday. Earlier that morning, before the news broke, team president Jason Wright declined to comment on the state of the team’s stadium search.

“Everything is incredibly confidential,” Wright said in an interview. “The way that we have always endeavored to do business with partners — Maryland, Virginia or D.C. — is to treat this as their project, their economic development strategy and to keep everything as quiet as possible so that those aims they have are most able to be accomplished.”

The Commanders’ agreement, while a signal that the franchise is serious about Woodbridge, doesn’t mean the move is a done deal. The team’s stadium search has seemingly narrowed to five sites — Woodbridge; near Potomac Shores Golf Club in Dumfries, Va.; a quarry near Dulles International Airport in Sterling, Va.; RFK Stadium in Washington; and a site near FedEx Field — and the deal in Virginia could ultimately be a negotiating tactic.

Margaret A. Franklin (D), the Prince William County supervisor who represents Woodbridge, said she didn’t know anything about the agreement. “I don’t represent any area under consideration,” she said via text.

One of the sites that has been under consideration is an area known as The Landing at Prince William, a stretch of land near Interstate 95 and the Prince William County Parkway that, in 2019, the county rezoned for eventual redevelopment. But Supervisor Kenny A. Boddye (D-Occoquan), who represents that area, said he wasn’t aware of any land deal there.

“I know that they are looking at that land,” said Boddye, adding that he had not been contacted by the Commanders and learned about the team’s actions in Prince William through news reports. “There has been no official application with the county or anything like that. It looks like they’re just sort of trying to lock up land at the potential sites they’re looking at in the county.”

“No decision has been made on a new stadium in Prince William County,” Christina Winn, executive director of the Prince William County Department of Economic Development, said in a statement. “As far as we understand, the team is exploring all of their options, including where they currently own land.”

She continued: “While this news doesn’t mean the team has officially chosen Prince William County, we look forward to engaging with the team to ensure any development opportunity would be a good fit for the community and there is a positive economic and fiscal benefit to the county.”

In fact, Commanders owner Daniel Snyder already owns a comparable amount of land — more than 200 acres — at the FedEx Field site. The organization has discussed similar plans for a “mini-city” with Maryland legislators, with a state-of-the-art stadium anchoring a large entertainment complex with restaurants, retail and housing. The state has a plan to spend $400 million to develop the area around FedEx Field but not build the stadium itself.

The team has at times indicated interest in returning to the RFK Stadium site in Washington, but the District’s leaders have been unable to introduce legislation to make the federally owned land a viable option for several reasons, including financing.

In a recent Washington Post survey of candidates for mayor and the D.C. Council, only three of 24 respondents said taxpayers should subsidize construction or development to support a new Commanders stadium — though one in favor of providing some financing was Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D).

“I support bringing the Commanders back to DC and would be willing to prepare the land for their use, but will not pay for stadium construction or subsidize it,” Bowser wrote in response to the questionnaire. “Regardless, I call on the federal government to transfer the land so we can use it to maximize recreation, retail & affordable housing.”

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who answered “no” on subsidies, has said he supports the city gaining control of the RFK land but would oppose the Commanders occupying it until the NFL releases a report on the findings of its sexual harassment investigation into Snyder. He also said the 13 council members are sharply divided on what to do with the land.

On Monday, the news of the option came as Virginia’s legislators got word to return to Richmond on June 1 to vote on a proposed state budget. That will be their last opportunity to vote on stadium authority legislation, which, like the budget, was carried into a special session after the General Assembly failed to wrap up its work in the regular session that concluded in March. Legislators tasked with hammering out differences between rival House and Senate stadium bills indicated last week that negotiations were still underway.

The potential move caused some to worry about the effect on the community. If the Commanders ultimately build in Woodbridge, the impact to local traffic on game days “would be pretty darn significant” in a county that has been heavily dependent on automobiles for transportation, said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, an organization that calls for pedestrian-friendly communities built around mass transit.

As it is, that part of I-95 is perpetually congested during rush hour, a reflection of the fact that Woodbridge has become more densely populated as the population in Prince William continues to grow.

County officials and state lawmakers who represent the area have lobbied for extended mass transit into the area, though that could be prohibitively expensive without additional development built around those trains, Schwartz said.

Last year, the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation estimated that it would cost $27 billion to extend either the Yellow or Blue Metro lines to that part of Prince William.

The Virginia deal did not dilute hope from Maryland lawmakers that the team would remain in Landover. Maryland lawmakers this spring approved investing $400 million in the area around FedEx Field, money to dismantle the existing stadium and build amenities that could anchor a mini-city concept. The cash will be spent regardless of whether the Commanders relocate, but Del. Jazz Lewis (D-Prince George’s), who represents the community near the stadium, said he hoped the $400 million was just the beginning of an incentive package for the team.

“I want it to be the beginning of the conversation,” Lewis said. “Of course I’d like them to stay and invest … But if they’re going to go, then fine.”

The Commanders have been playing at FedEx Field since 1997 but have been shopping for a new stadium option for several years. The team is obligated to play in Landover until at least 2027.

The team’s stadium search figures to be a topic of conversation moving forward. It led a Monday morning panel of local sports executives hosted by the Greater Washington Board of Trade.

“Jason, are we ready to say where the new location of the stadium —” began moderator Greg Wallig, the managing principal of Grant Thornton’s metropolitan D.C. and Arlington office.

“That’s where we’re going to start?” Wright said with a laugh, before demurring.

Vozzella reported from Richmond. Erin Cox contributed to this report.