ST. LOUIS (CN) – St. Louis, which is trying to keep its NFL team from moving, does not need voter approval to provide funding for a new football stadium, a city judge ruled Monday.
The Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority wants to build a riverfront stadium to keep the Rams from moving to Los Angeles.
The stadium, which could cost up to $1 billion, would partly be paid for by the city by extending the bonds used to build the Edward Jones Dome.
The Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority filed a lawsuit in April seeking declaratory relief against a law city voters passed in 2002, requiring voter approval before St. Louis can fund any new professional sports complexes.
The Authority argued that it was established in 1988 through a series of state laws, known as the RSA statutes, and that the 2002 ordinance conflicted with those laws.
Circuit Judge Thomas J. Frawley’s decision was a decisive win for pro-stadium interests. It comes a week before NFL owners will meet to discuss the relocation of a team or teams to Los Angeles.
“Today’s Circuit Court ruling by Judge Thomas Frawley clears the way for the stadium task force to continue making solid progress under the aggressive timeframes set by the NFL,” Gov. Jay Nixon, a stadium supporter, said in a statement.
“It is clear from the 34-page decision that the court carefully considered and analyzed the city’s arguments. Moving forward, efforts to redevelop the north riverfront will continue in a manner that protects taxpayers, creates jobs, and brings hundreds of millions of dollars in private investment to the St. Louis region,” the governor said.
Though Frawley found that the 2002 ordinance did not conflict with the RSA statutes, he said the city law did conflict with state law on public approval of transportation development district financing, which the stadium plans to use.
More importantly, Frawley found several areas of the 2002 law too vague.
“There is no uncertainty with what was intended when the ordinance was presented to, and approved by, the voters of the City of St. Louis,” Frawley wrote. “However, the ordinance provides no guidance on when, how or by whom the issue of the City’s financial assistance to development of the proposed new professional sports facility will be submitted to a public vote.”
Frawley picked apart several terms in the ordinance. He questioned the word “development,” asking if the city could investigate the feasibility of a new stadium or even “conduct internal discussions regarding a new professional sports facility, meet with bankers, lawyers and non-governmental leaders within the City, scout potential sites, or conduct surveys without first obtaining voter approval?”
He questioned the ordinance’s use of “financial assistance.”
“Finally, and most importantly, though financial assistance as defined by the ordinance may be provided to the new professional sports facility only after voter approval, what will be submitted to the voters to approve?” Frawley wrote. “The ordinance provides no guidance.”
Frawley rejected the city’s argument that the stadium project would violate the RSA statues because it is not directly adjacent to the Edward Jones Dome. The proposed stadium is across a busy street from the Edward Jones Dome. Frawley found that concessions and parking areas are part of the sports complex, satisfying the adjacency requirement.
Finally, Frawley dismissed the city’s request that the court sever any provisions of the ordinance that it found invalid, while keeping the rest of the ordinance intact.
“(T)he fatal flaw in the ordinance is not in what it says but in what it doesn’t say,” Frawley said. “Therefore, to render the ordinance valid, the Court must add to, not strike from, the ordinance to cure its vagueness.”
In a separate order, Frawley denied a motion to intervene by three city taxpayers, finding they lacked standing .
City Counselor Winston Calvert did not respond to Courthouse News’ request for comment and it is unclear whether the city will appeal. But in a statement released when the Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority filed the complaint, Mayor Francis Slay said: “City Counselor Winston Calvert will vigorously defend the validity of our ordinance. Whatever the outcome, we will follow the law.”
The proposed stadium has a final legal hurdle to clear, a lawsuit from six Cole County lawmakers who claim Nixon does not have the authority to extend state bonds for the project. Cole County is home to Jefferson City, the state capital.
Part of the lawmakers’ claim involved the adjacency issue on which Frawley ruled. A motion in that case request transfer to St. Louis, where there is local interest.
Dave Peacock, the face of the Stadium Taskforce created by Nixon, praised the work of his partner Bob Blitz, who argued on behalf of the Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority during a 3½ hour hearing before Frawley in June.
“The court’s opinion is a victory for a bold and promising future for the NFL in St. Louis and the continued rebirth of our downtown,” Peacock said in a statement Monday. “As we continue to make excellent progress on the stadium project, this is a great time for everyone in the St. Louis region to rally on behalf of something that will make a difference in our economy, national profile and quality of life for generations to come. We can make it happen.”
Public financing of professional sports stadiums generally stirs up only muted opposition. Opponents ask why billionaire team owners deserve tax money, but sports fans argue that the net gain of having a professional sports franchise in the city is worth the cost.
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