Stadium fight becomes full-time job

January 03, 1995|By Shirley Leung | Shirley Leung,Sun Staff Writer

Not a day has passed in the past year that Jeanne Mignon hasn't thought about Jack Kent Cooke building a 78,600-seat stadium for his football team in her community.

The 40-year-old Laurel resident, whose home is 1 1/2 miles from the proposed site next to the Laurel racetrack, whipped off letters to state senators and delegates the day after Mr. Cooke, owner of the Redskins, announced his plans Dec. 7, 1993.

She spent most of the next week on the phone, helping organize Citizens Against the Stadium II. She has been president since February.

"I spent so much time on the phone, I have an infected ear," said Mrs. Mignon, an activist since her college years.

CATS II, with about 200 active members and 1,000 on its mailing list, has waged a tenacious battle against Mr. Cooke and his camp of lawyers, lobbyists and experts. For nearly 400 days, the community group has worked almost nonstop to keep the 82-year-old multimillionaire from building the $160 million stadium their neighborhood.

Their tenacity has not gone unnoticed.

"I've seen other organized groups, but they're one of the most committed and effective I've seen," said Alan M. Rifkin, one of Mr. Cooke's former lobbyists. "In all honesty and fairness, they deserve praise. Doesn't mean I agree with them."

Many of the leaders of CATS didn't even know each other before Mr. Cooke came along. Now they spend nearly every week together.

They've gone beyond the buttons, bumper stickers and letter-writing campaigns that characterize most grass-roots protests. They have taken sound measurements during Redskins games at RFK stadium in Washington and at a Giants game at the Meadowlands in New Jersey to gather ammunition to show that a stadium does not belong in their neighborhood.

At times, especially during the summer's six weeks of public hearings, CATS II members said they felt as if they had taken on second full-time jobs.

"You ask how do you do this? The answer is you don't stop," said Mrs. Mignon. "We don't feel like we've won until he [Mr. Cooke] goes away."

Robert C. Wilcox, the county's administrative hearing officer, rejected the Redskins' request for zoning exceptions to build the stadium, but Mr. Cooke has appealed.

Nick Ruggiero, vice president of CATS II, drove from Goddard Space Center, where he works as an engineer, to Meade High School to listen to hearing testimony during his lunch breaks. At night, he and three neighbors met at the Resurrection of Our Lord Catholic Church on Brock Bridge Road from about 7 p.m. to midnight to review the day's evidence with the CATS II lawyer, Thomas Dernoga.

But did he think this would go on for more than a year?

"Yes, I did know that it was going to last this long," said Mr. Ruggiero, who can see the proposed site from his front yard. "I really hoped after the hearings that [Mr. Cooke] would go back to the District [of Columbia]. I did get my hopes up, but then he didn't."

CATS II leaders say they've been able to keep the pressure on because of support both inside and outside the community.

"A lot of people think when there is opposition, they dismiss us as a handful of NIMBY types," Mary Lehman, the CATS II spokeswoman said, using the acronym for "not in my backyard." "What's amazed me continually is that we have incredibly widespread support. . . . We've gotten donations from all over Maryland."

Had the community not rallied, construction would have started already, Mrs. Mignon said as she looked toward the appeal hearings that begin March 27.

"We now have a victory. We have won Round One. That gives us credibility. We've lasted a year. There are people who thought that we'd get tired and go home. We've just got more annoyed."

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