Opponents and supporters of a proposed National Football League stadium in Laurel turned out in about equal numbers last night in their first opportunity to publicly address the county official who will decide whether the project can go forward.
About 350 people attended the hearing at Meade Senior High School on the grounds of Fort Meade in western Anne Arundel County, many of them carrying signs or wearing buttons proclaiming their loyalties. Reflecting the even numbers, 75 people had signed up to speak in favor of the stadium as the hearing began and 76 had signed up to speak against it.
Last night's testimony came at the end of the second week of a hearing to determine whether the Redskins will be granted a special exception that would allow them to build a $160 million, 78,600-seat stadium in an industrial zone next to the Laurel Race Course.
The gamesmanship began outside the auditorium, where both sides faced off in a war of signs and banners: "Jack, build it in your own backyard" and "One man's dream, 5,000 people's nightmare" vs. "Yes to Redskins stadium: more business, more jobs" and "Bring the NFL to Maryland."
Before the hearing began, Administrative Hearing Officer Robert C. Wilcox pleaded for cool heads to prevail as residents addressed the issue.
"One of the things you can help me with is by giving me information I can use," Mr. Wilcox said.
Representatives from Citizens for a Planned Stadium entered a petition into evidence during the hearing containing the signatures of nearly 6,000 residents who support the stadium. Redskins officials said the petition, plus the turnout of supporters that equaled opponents, disproved the claim that most Laurel residents oppose the stadium.
But last night, opponents such as Judith Klein of Laurel said speakers supporting the stadium appeared to be in a position to profit from it.
"Most of the people who live here have a hard time handling it," she said.
Dan Gentile of Russett, a large housing development near the proposed stadium site, said he does not believe predictions of lowered property values if it is built.
"I have consulted many real estate agents in the area and not one of them thinks the stadium will have a negative impact on property values," he said.
Julie Abbatte of Russett said the Laurel area is too small to support a stadium.
"A stadium shouldn't even be considered where it's so close to neighborhoods, schools, recreational facilities and churches," she said.
But supporters said the stadium would bring jobs, more business and prestige to the area.
"Baltimore was always known for The Block," said Sandy Smith of Pasadena. "Now it's known for the Inner Harbor and it would be nice for the surrounding area to be known for the [Redskins] stadium."
Supporters also argued that the stadium will bring sorely needed tax revenue into the county which is limited by a voter-imposed property tax cap.
"If our tax dollars won't be able to cover the need for education then perhaps the small portion of revenue will get the additional school, teacher, fire and police protection we need," said Marie Cook of Severn, "because we're not going to get it any other way."