Stadium foes and Redskins both say they like the way hearing is going

July 24, 1994|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Sun Staff Writer

As the hearing on the Redskins' request to build a football stadium in Laurel reaches what is perhaps its midpoint, both sides say they have reason for optimism.

The Redskins, who are seeking a special exception for a $160 million, 78,600-seat stadium in an industrial zone next to the Laurel Race Course, believe that they have laid out a very strong presentation so far.

"We think we've made a persuasive case so far for the stadium, especially as it relates to the feasibility of our traffic plan and our parking plan," said Alan Rifkin, an attorney representing the Redskins.

But stadium opponents, who have yet to present their own arguments, say they have been successful in poking holes in the testimony of some of the Redskins' expert witnesses on parking, traffic, lighting and noise.

"We haven't let any one of them walk away with out making them answer some tough questions," said Thomas Dernoga, the lawyer for Citizens Against the Stadium II (CATS). "And we've been technically prepared, not just harassing."

The Redskins said they had a good week.

On Tuesday, as Administrative Hearing Officer Robert C. Wilcox chided them for a site plan that contained slightly more than half the 39,000 parking spaces required by law, he admitted that the law was probably unrealistic in this case.

Mr. Wilcox indicated that he would probably be willing to give the Redskins a break on parking, but not a reduction to the 20,070 spaces on their site plan.

Redskins officials were very pleased by Mr. Wilcox's comments.

"We could not live without that variance," said Redskins project manager Walter Lynch. "There's just no way we could build a facility with 39,000 parking spaces in it. There isn't a facility with that many spaces in the world."

But stadium opponents were undaunted by what could be a major setback to their challenge.

Jeanne Mignon, president of Citizens Against the Stadium II, noted that Mr. Wilcox kept pressing Redskins traffic consultants for a "magic number" of parking spaces beyond the 20,070 they could squeeze on the site without needing major modifications to local roads.

"They still don't seem to have that answer. What is the magic number?" Mrs. Mignon asked.

L "So I don't consider this a setback at this time," she said.

Mr. Dernoga, the CATS lawyer, said he agreed with Mr. Wilcox's characterization of the legal parking requirement as "ridiculous."

"But you've got to understand what [the Redskins] have got to prove," he said. "Proving that the law is a little too stringent isn't the way to get a variance."

Rather, they must demonstrate that there are practical difficulties or unnecessary hardships that prevent them from precisely carrying out the rules.

"They can't be self-created hardships," Mr. Dernoga said, and having too little land for parking qualifies as a hardship created by the Redskins.

Mr. Dernoga points out that at the same time Mr. Wilcox made his remark about the unreasonableness of the parking requirement, he also told the Redskins that if any of the assumptions in their traffic study are found to be faulty -- such as their projection that each car driven to the stadium will contain an average of 3.5 fans -- their entire plan will collapse.

"If it flies, you've made your case," Mr. Wilcox said Tuesday. "But if any one component does not fit, it's going to unravel the entire fabric."

Craig Horn, chairman of Citizens for a Planned Stadium in Laurel, acknowledged that some questions have been raised about the impact of traffic, although he still believes that the stadium plan can and should go forward.

A Redskins traffic expert testified that six intersections in Laurel along Route 198, all in Prince George's County, would fail for an hour either before or after a stadium event. The standard for a failing intersection is that traffic would not pass through the intersection within one cycle of the traffic lights.

"Unquestionably, traffic is a concern to everyone," Mr. Horn said. "There's no doubt in many minds that there are alternatives not yet discovered.

"It's in everyone's best interest to continue to review the traffic plan to seek ways to improve it."

The Redskins had one more cause for optimism as the week came to a close: the strong turnout of stadium supporters at Thursday night's public hearing, equaling in numbers those who came to testify against it.

"When we started this process six months ago, we would have been delighted to have half the positive response we had [Thursday] night," Mr. Rifkin said.

"In the early days of our proposal, some had the initial opinion that it was the community in opposition and business in support [of the stadium], and that there were clear lines of demarcation," he said. "That couldn't be further from the truth."

On the downside, there have been several occasions in the past two weeks when Mr. Wilcox has been annoyed with Redskins officials for not providing information in a timely manner.

Anne Arundel County planning officials did not receive reports on lighting and noise until early last week, just a day before the witnesses were to testify on those subjects.

The Redskins denied withholding information and said they distribute it as soon as they receive it. Team representatives said Mr. Wilcox's admonitions are merely part of the process.

"That is the hearing examiner's role and our obligation," Mr. Rifkin said.

"We read no more into it than the desire to have all of the relevant information that the hearing examiner needs, which may be different from the information we thought would be necessary," he said. "There has never been an effort to keep information private. That would be contrary to obtaining a successful resolution."

The Redskins said they have about six more witnesses to present, including their environmental experts.

Neutral parties and then the opposition will present their cases to Mr. Wilcox.

Observers say they expect the hearing to last about two more weeks.

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