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D.C. officials say MLB will back lease deal


Washington -- City officials expressed confidence yesterday that Major League Baseball would accept a new stadium lease agreement that supporters believe will keep Washington from losing its team.

But baseball administrators in New York suggested it was too soon for the city to celebrate.

As of late afternoon, baseball said it still hadn't received a final copy of the hastily crafted agreement, with all its amendments, that the D.C. Council approved in yesterday's early hours. Without all the documents, baseball said it couldn't decide whether the agreement was acceptable.

In a 9-4 vote, the council approved a lease agreement in which the city would rent a new publicly financed stadium to the Washington Nationals for 30 years. As part of the agreement, the council passed legislation capping the city's costs at $610.8 million.

Both measures were approved after the council had initially rejected the lease and then reconsidered.

Baseball said it needs to study the council's actions to make sure they don't violate any earlier agreements the city made as part of acquiring the former Montreal Expos before the 2005 season.

"We are very concerned about what we heard during the debate and we need to read the materials and the legislative language so we can determine whether they are consistent with the agreements between Major League Baseball and the city," baseball spokesman Richard Levin said in a prepared statement.

Vince Morris, an aide to Mayor Anthony A. Williams, said the mayor hoped "to hear word from MLB in the next few days."

In an earlier prepared statement, the mayor sounded as if the deal were done. "Today is a turning point in the District's history," Williams said. "In 25 years, we will look back on this day as the moment when we decided to put aside cheap political stunts and misguided rabblerousing and focus instead on the tremendous lift this project will mean to the entire city."

One potential hangup: The council's cost cap language says the team's new owners could be asked to pitch in money for the stadium so the city doesn't exceed the cap. That could prove to be a sticky issue for baseball, which has tried to keep prospective team buyers out of the stadium negotiating process.

Baseball owns the club, but plans to sell it to investors as soon as the stadium financing arrangements are in place.

Though the new owners could be tapped for stadium money, they aren't the only contingency for keeping the District under the cap, said William Hall, a member of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission.

Hall said in an interview that the council's legislation lists other options for keeping costs in check. One is "valued engineering," which means the District agrees to scale back any grand plans for stadium design or features to save money. Another listed funding source is the federal government.

"I'm confident we can work through this," Hall said. "Certainly, this was a strong statement by the council that it wants baseball to stay here."

Like baseball, Hall said he was waiting yesterday for the council-passed legislation to be written in final form. Some of the last-minute language was written by council members "from the dais," Hall said.

The city plans to fund the stadium with a business tax, a utility tax, a levy on stadium concessions and by charging the team rent.

The stadium is to be constructed on the Anacostia River waterfront. Though the design calls for liberal use of steel and glass, Council member Jack Evans has suggested that use of those expensive materials be limited to save money and to prevent the facility from looking like "a spaceship," aides said.

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