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Stadium-site eviction notices on hold until baseball makes decision

- The Washington Times - Friday, February 24, 2006

Eviction notices for landowners on the site of the proposed Washington Nationals baseball stadium won't be issued until Major League Baseball agrees to terms with the city government, a D.C. Superior Court judge said yesterday.

Legislation for a ballpark lease gives league officials until March 6 to agree to the deal so the city can issue bonds to begin construction. Baseball owners have been reviewing changes added by the D.C. Council that would limit city spending to $611 million.

The D.C. government is working to use its eminent domain authority to take possession of 15 parcels of privately held land. Construction is scheduled for completion in 2008.

"At the point that I'm satisfied that the baseball deal is going forward, I will sign the orders of possession," Judge Joan Zeldon said in a court hearing. "Don't ask me what happens if [baseball owners] don't agree, because I don't know."

Judge Zeldon ordered a half dozen landowners fighting to keep their property to go into formal mediation with the city government in the next two weeks.

"I'm prepared to rule," she said, "but it's better if the parties agree."

A spokesman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams, a Democrat, said the city hopes to finalize the deal with baseball within two weeks, and that the administration was pleased with the judge's vow to sign over the land for the project.

"We worked hard to make sure that every landowner was treated with respect and was well compensated for their property," the mayor's spokesman, Vince Morris, said. "It's our hope that we can begin building the ballpark this spring."

Once the stadium lease is approved, the city expects to sell bonds for the ballpark construction, Lasana Mack, the city's deputy chief financial officer, told the judge. But he couldn't guarantee the bonds would be issued right away because other factors also affect the deal.

Judge Zeldon said once the bonds are sold she would "promptly sign" the land over to the city. "This is a case where a number of parties have rights," she said.

But once she rules, property owners would have just 10 days to leave. "That's why I'm warning people -- make your plans to move," the judge said.

The issue of how much landowners would be paid for their property would be decided later during jury trials. But landowners can take the money the city has offered them and still appeal for more, Judge Zeldon said.

Several attorneys representing property owners said the judge ultimately will have to decide whether the city has done enough to help the private landowners.

It's a "situation that destroys businesses," said attorney Dale A. Cooter, who represents a car mechanic, a sculpture gallery owner and the owner of several homosexually oriented adult businesses.

"There is a real economic, human impact."