- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 21, 2009

President Obama threw out the ceremonial first pitch before last week’s All-Star Game in St. Louis.

When will he throw out the first pitch for kids in the District?

Plans for a baseball academy and the expansion of the Fort Dupont Ice Arena remain in doubt because National Park Service bureaucrats have decided the interests of their little kingdom are more important than the interests of kids.

The Fort Dupont Ice Arena in Southeast, built in 1976, already serves an estimated 10,000 boys and girls each year, hosts numerous skating and educational programs and is in desperate need of more room.

“We have a waiting list of kids,” said Willem Polak, chairman of the Friends of Fort Dupont, the nonprofit organization that operates the facility. “It is a great place for kids in a part of the city that doesn’t have much. We’re trying to give kids a better life that don’t have anything.”

Who would be against that?

But actions by the park service and the Maryland and Virginia native plant societies have put the projects in jeopardy.

“It is frustrating,” Polak said. “How long do we want to put up with this?”

The most frustrating thing is that, save for some bad weather in January, the baseball academy and Fort Dupont expansion projects could be well on their way to raising the needed funds.

In the final days of the George W. Bush administration, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne pushed forward plans to transfer 15 acres of Fort Dupont land for the projects from the park service to the District. The transfer would have allowed both the Friends of Fort Dupont and supporters of the baseball academy to crank up fundraising efforts, knowing the project’s future was secure.

The Washington Nationals Dream Foundation agreed to donate $1 million for the baseball academy, which would cost an estimated $10 million to $13 million. That donation and the club’s agreement to contribute $250,000 every year to run the academy was part of the deal the city made with Major League Baseball in 2005 to fund and construct Nationals Park.

City officials determined the academy ideally would be located at Fort Dupont, giving low-income children there the chance to take part in both academy and ice arena activities.

The project was such a done deal that the Interior Department and the Nationals sent a notice Dec. 17 announcing a news conference with Mayor Adrian Fenty, team representatives and other local leaders at 10:30 a.m. the next day.

I showed up at the appointed time. No one was there.

Turns out Kempthorne’s plane was delayed by bad weather in the Midwest, and his agency didn’t want to proceed with the dog-and-pony show without the top dog. The event was postponed.

That was the opportunity the park service, which is reluctant to give up any land in its empire, needed to freeze out this project. After all, Interior secretaries come and go. Bureaucrats last for decades.

The park service added some tough language to the transfer agreement that says, in essence, ownership reverts to the park service if it doesn’t like something - any little thing - the District does with the property.

“It was going to go ahead. Then the park service decided they would make it difficult,” Polak said. “The language they had in for the transfer of property made it impossible to go out and raise money as a nonprofit. If the park service doesn’t like the lights, they can come in and take them out.”

So Kempthorne was gone, and the Obama administration’s pick, Ken Salazar, took over, which set the whole process back again.

Then, suddenly, a lawsuit appeared.

The Maryland Native Plant Society, the Virginia Native Plant Society and Daniel Culp, listed as a District resident, filed suit against the park service April 23 over the plans for Fort Dupont.

They charged that the park service failed to follow the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Park Service Organic Act and the Administrative Procedure Act “in preparation of the Environmental Assessment and finding of no significant impact… [the] transfer would have on the forest bordering the proposed development.”

Park service spokeswoman Gayle Hazelwood, citing the lawsuit, declined to comment.

The lawsuit means, for now, that nothing is happening to bring the District closer to making the baseball academy or ice rink expansion a reality.

“Now nobody will do anything until this court case is heard or dismissed,” Polak said. “So it sits for another year or two.”

Chuck Patrizia, the lawyer representing the Friends of Fort Dupont, is working with the park service to try to change the language of the transfer deal.

“There should be a recognition that there are lots of remedies for different circumstances, instead of using sledgehammers to swat flies,” he said.

Marla Lerner Tanenbaum, a co-owner of the Nationals who also chairs the Dream Foundation, said the park service has thwarted all efforts to get the academy started.

“I felt all along the park service has a mandate to protect lands under its control,” she said. “If they chose to, they can facilitate these transfers. If they decide they don’t want it, they can make it very difficult. They don’t want to facilitate this transfer. I see what is going on. They have a bureaucratic chip on their shoulder.”

Tanenbaum said the foundation is doing all it can to move the project forward until the land issue is resolved. The foundation’s steering committee is raising funds, has met with architects, has visited facilities like the Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., and recently has met with baseball commissioner Bud Selig to review efforts.

“We’re still trying to push this thing ahead,” she said. “I feel like what I have been doing mostly over the last couple of years is just keeping people’s eyes on the prize. We are still trying to raise money and create a structure for this.”

Had Kempthorne managed to get back to the District for that news conference, Polak believes both projects would be well on the way to becoming reality.

“If he doesn’t get frozen in, yes, I believe this is moving forward,” Polak said. “They would not have let him have that press conference if they were not sure this was going ahead.”

Added Tanenbaum: “Secretary Kempthorne pushed the park service to do something. We thought this was a done deal.”

The lawsuit conveniently takes the heat off the park service, which can say it can’t do anything with the property until the suit is resolved.

“The lawsuit is just noise,” Tanenbaum said. “I think if it went before a judge, it would be handled quickly. We did a full environmental assessment. It should not be something that stands in our way. I know the park service is using this as a reason not to talk about it. I think that is nonsense. I don’t think they should be hiding behind it.

“This is not Yellowstone over there. It used to be a golf course. This has not been virgin land. We are proposing only to improve it in terms of its beauty and use to the community.”

Polak takes a more cynical view.

“I think there are a fair number of people who believe the park service invited [the lawsuit],” he said. “They are probably happy with it. It stalls everything.”

The attorney in the litigation for the plant societies, Jamie Pleune of the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University Law Center, said she was not aware of any efforts by the park service to push for the lawsuit. She articulated the “appreciation” that both organizations are trying to promote.

“The purpose of the lawsuit is to get the National Park Service to fulfill its responsibility and look at all of the environment effects of the proposed transfer,” she said. “They looked at what happened within the footprint of the transfer, but there was no analysis of what would happen beyond the border of the transfer. They look at the impact of the baseball academy on the field but not what would happen if they graded the field all the way up to the forest and the impact on the forest.

“It is a very nice example of native forest communities that have not been disturbed by a lot of invasive species. There are not as much deer over there, so you have a healthier forest community and more variety of native plant species there. That is why they are so concerned about this specific forest.”

Kirsten Johnson, president of the Maryland group, said the park service did not push her group to file suit.

“They in no way encouraged us to do this,” she said. “Our D.C. chapter has been conducting walks in that area for years. We are very familiar with it and have a real interest in preserving these forests.”

Still, given its reluctance through the years to transfer land for the ice arena expansion, the park service appears to have an “appreciation” for the lawsuit, at the least. City officials who helped bring baseball back to the District, on the other hand, have no “appreciation” for the delay in getting the academy going.

“The transfer of land to the baseball academy is long overdue and to the detriment of the kids in Washington who are looking to have that opportunity to learn baseball,” said Bill Hall, a member of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission. “This was one of the most important community obligations we negotiated with the Nationals, and we believed it would be up and running by now. We hope it will happen soon so we can get the benefits of our baseball investment and to benefit the kids in Washington.”

One man, of course, could make the pitch needed - the man who stepped on the mound last week at Busch Stadium for the ceremonial first pitch.

President Obama did so as a symbol of support for the national pastime. A baseball academy for kids in the nation’s capital would make a more meaningful symbol.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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