Friday, February 10, 2006

District and Major League Baseball officials yesterday received the final version of a stadium lease and legislation passed by the D.C. Council that caps the city’s expenditure for the ballpark project, but it was still unclear whether the deal would be ratified by the league.

Attorneys and clerks spent much of yesterday and Wednesday reviewing videotapes of Tuesday night’s whirlwind council session in order to make sense of what happened. Provisions of the bill changed in midstream because of amendments requested by council members, and the complete, four-page version of the bill was not available until more than 36 hours after it was passed.

The final cap legislation calls for the city to contribute no more than $611 million toward the stadium, to be built along South Capitol Street, near the Anacostia River. The bill also allows for the sale of land at the ballpark site, with any extra funds to be deposited in a special community benefits fund.

MLB spokesman Rich Levin said league officials were still collecting some documents from the city and declined to comment further. On Wednesday, the league issued a statement that it was “very concerned” about issues raised during the council’s debate on the legislation.

According to several city and industry sources, MLB could object to a provision in the cap legislation that allows certain cost overruns for the stadium to shift to the team owner. The league has agreed to give $20 million toward the project, but has resisted contributing more because it agreed to relocate the Nationals to D.C. on the grounds that the city would fully finance the stadium.

Last year, MLB accepted bids from eight groups for the team, and settled on a $450 million sale price based on terms that included a ballpark fully financed by the city. If MLB accepts the cap legislation, it might then ask bidders if they would still meet that price, even if they are vulnerable to being responsible for cost overruns.

“This might knock that [$450 million] price right out the window,” said one bidder.

Several bidders have indicated they would meet the $450 million even if asked to pay toward the stadium, and one bidder, developer Franklin Haney, has promised to contribute as much as $200 million toward overruns.

MLB has until March 6 to agree, or the cap legislation and lease will become invalid. If MLB finds the new terms unacceptable, it could file for arbitration to end the dispute.

D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi also must sign off on the deal to ensure that it allows the city to obtain investment-grade ratings on the bonds used to finance the stadium. Gandhi met with Mayor Anthony A. Williams yesterday afternoon, but was still reviewing documents and had not yet given his approval.

Meanwhile yesterday, the city scored a victory in its efforts to gain possession of land at the ballpark site, when the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled against a motion from a landowner who objected to the city’s attempt to take his property through eminent domain. Robert Siegel, who owns several adult and gay-oriented businesses on the site, had argued that the city’s appraisal of his property was flawed, and therefore made a the stadium’s financing plan invalid. The court shot down the motion on the grounds that the city’s assessments had been approved by the D.C. Council, and could not be questioned by a court.

“The decision affirms what we’ve said all along,” Williams said. “The process has been more than fair — it is going forward, and we do not expect any further obstacles in court.”

A D.C. Superior Court judge is expected to rule Feb. 24 on a motion by the city to force landowners to clear out so ballpark construction can begin. If the judge rules in favor of the city, construction preparations for the stadium could begin by March, as long as the council approves a contract between the city and construction team.

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