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Federal budget fight slows Redskins’ path to build new stadium at RFK site

RFK Stadium was the home of the Redskins until 1997.
RFK Stadium was the home of the Redskins until 1997. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The Washington Redskins’ prospects of building their next stadium on the former RFK Stadium site suffered a setback this week when Congress failed to come to terms on broad spending legislation that could have granted control of the federally owned land to the District.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, in conjunction with top Redskins officials, had hoped to slip language granting control of the 190-acre parcel to the District into a massive appropriations bill that was being considered by the Republican-controlled Congress. The provision would have paved the way for mixed-use development of the property, and Bowser has made clear her wish that a new, 60,000-seat Redskins stadium be its anchor.

But with Congress divided on even a short-term stopgap and with a partial government shutdown arriving Friday at midnight, Bowser (D) and the Redskins will have to start from scratch in 2019 and forge a compromise with a Democratic-controlled House that’s expected to be less enthusiastic about handing over control of the site for mixed-use development.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting member in Congress, made clear in an interview this week that she is committed to helping broker a compromise that would acquire the land for the city, whether via a 99-year lease or land transfer, and then leave District residents and officials to decide what to do with it. Norton’s objection to the team’s name, which she and some others in Congress find offensive, is well documented. But she stressed that her view should not factor into the city’s decision.

“The waste to the city, the waste to the federal government, should be enough to move to some kind of compromise,” Norton said. “All I want is to get the land in the hand of the District.”

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Norton characterized the debate that would ensue over the land’s use as “an uphill fight.”

“The District would have a hard time among its own constituents deciding whether or not the land will be used for the Redskins, for mixed use or the rest,” Norton said. “It’s not as if the District got control of it [and] you’re in like Flynn with whatever [Redskins owner Daniel] Snyder and the Redskins want. That would be an uphill fight no matter how you cut it.”

Snyder has been circumspect about his plans for a new stadium but beamed during an August luncheon in D.C. as Bowser, with whom he shared a table, declared, “Bring it home!” in reference to a Redskins stadium as the missing element on the RFK site that the team vacated when FedEx Field opened in Landover in 1997.

On Thursday, The Post reported that one of the District’s biggest backers of the stadium plan, D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), may be under investigation for his interactions with a digital sign company, potentially hampering his role in the project. A “HailNoRFK” online petition, hosted by D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), has more than 3,300 signatures.

Bowser chief of staff John J. Falcicchio said that, despite inaction by Congress, the discussion had emphasized the importance to lawmakers that the RFK land, which now consists mainly of empty parking lots, needs to be put to better use.

“Virginia has Wolf Trap, which is the only national park dedicated to the arts. D.C. has the only national park dedicated to asphalt,” he said. “That’s why we need to find a solution.”

Meanwhile, new details emerged about efforts by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to swap land in the western part of the state to the federal government in exchange for what he had said were 300 acres of Oxon Cove Park, with an eye toward offering that as a site for the Redskins’ next stadium.

In a nonbinding agreement between the state and the Department of the Interior, which oversees the Park Service, Hogan agreed to help the federal agencies acquire about 2,481 acres located in South Mountain State Battlefield, Gathland State Park and surrounding areas that have Civil War significance. In exchange, the state would receive “approximately 512 acres comprising the portion of Oxon Cove Park” run by the Park Service, according to the September 2017 agreement. The agreement was produced by the Park Service in response to a public records request.

Norton downplayed a suggestion that Hogan’s efforts heightened the sense of urgency for an RFK land deal, saying: “The reason I think it isn’t [heightening the urgency] is because, clearly, all involved want it to be in the District. That lease is going to run out, so that’s a ticking time bomb.”

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Contrary to that widely held perception, the Redskins’ tenure at FedEx Field is not a “ticking time bomb” at all. After reviewing the two contractual documents associated with John Kent Cooke’s 1996 purchase of the land on which the stadium sits — the three-page deed and a 19-page declaration of covenants, conditions, restrictions and easements — Prince George’s County officials concluded that the team will not be forced out in 2027, as is widely believed, and can continue playing there as long as it likes.

The documents, which are public record, were shared with The Washington Post this week. They reveal that Cooke bought the 188.2-acre parcel, then known as the Wilson Farm Stadium Property, from the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission for $4.135 million via his Delaware corporation, JKC Stadium Inc., to build an NFL stadium with about 78,600 seats and parking lots with approximately 20,000 spaces.

Snyder acquired both the stadium and the land as part of his roughly $800 million purchase of the Redskins from trustees of Jack Kent Cooke’s estate in 1999.

The covenant applied to any subsequent owner of the team and requires the Redskins to play all their home games at the stadium built on the land until whichever date falls later: Aug. 31, 2027, or the day before the 30th anniversary of the first home game played there. That works out to Sept. 13, 2027. (The Redskins played their first two games of the 1997 season on the road.)

Explained John Erzen II, deputy chief of staff and spokesman for Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, who retrieved the land records at The Post’s request and conferred with the county’s office of law on its requirements: “It is our position that once they have fulfilled the covenant, which would require them to play through the latter of the two dates, there is nothing more that they have to do. They can leave at that point, but they can also stay. Leave, stay — the choice is theirs.”

Redskins President Bruce Allen shed no light on the matter when asked this week, via email, whether the Redskins shared the understanding that they were obligated to play at FedEx until Sept. 13, 2027, and that nothing precludes them from continuing to play at FedEx after that date.

“These are questions for a later time,” Allen replied via team spokesman Tony Wyllie.