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Fenway bill is signed; council role examined

By Meg Vaillancourt, Globe Staff, 8/11/2000

aying the Red Sox had reached "second base" in their quest to build a new Fenway Park, Governor Paul Cellucci yesterday signed a bill authorizing up to $312 million in public funds to pay for the infrastructure and land needed for the project. Cellucci cautioned, however, that it may take months to clear two big remaining hurdles -- Boston City Council approval to take the land for the ballpark and the team's securing $352 million in private financing to construct the facility.

"When we get the City Council [vote], we'll be on third base," Cellucci said. "And when the Red Sox line up private financing, we'll be home."

But a close reading of the bill Cellucci signed shows that the City Council vote may be less of a threat to the project than anticipated. The bill appears to require only a simple majority of the 13 council members to approve the land-takings, not the two-thirds vote that ballpark opponents had counted on.

Despite Mayor Thomas M. Menino's support for the project, several city councilors have vowed to block the land-takings, arguing that acquiring the land for a new ballpark is not a legitimate public purpose. Project opponents feel certain they have at least the five votes needed to block the new ballpark if the two-thirds requirement is in place.

However, the bill was artfully written. Instead of calling for the land-takings as a separate step, the city's eminent domain proceedings are part of an "Economic Development Plan" the Menino administration will draft over the next few months.

It is that plan that will eventually be placed before the council. According to city and state officials who have studied the Fenway Park bill, the plan requires only a majority vote.

If that interpretation holds, Menino may not have to work as hard to win council approval. On the other hand, opponents would need at least two more votes, in addition to the five councilors viewed as most likely to oppose the land-takings.

"It gives the mayor some leeway,"said one source involved in drafting the bill. "He may still seek the two-thirds vote anyway, because he has to do that to win approval to use city bonds for the project. But the development plan language makes it easier since most people thought the land-takings would be the most controversial aspect of the deal."

Under the legislation, the city's Economic Development Industrial Corporation, working with the Boston Redevelopment Authority, is charged with acquiring the roughly 10 acres of privately owned land needed for the new ballpark.

But the bill specifies that the EDIC "shall neither acquire any property . . . nor institute any [eminent domain] proceeding prior to the preparation of an economic development plan . . . and the approval of such a plan by the City Council and mayor."

According to attorneys who reviewed the measure for the city, the language mirrors most City Council approvals and therefore would require only a majority vote, not a two-thirds margin.

As a result, if every councilor votes on the Economic Development Plan for the new ballpark, the land-takings could be narrowly approved with a 7-6 vote, rather than the 9-4 margin needed if the two-thirds requirement was in place.

Opponents of a new Fenway Park are certain to challenge that interpretation of the measure. Seven city councilors signed a letter recently opposing the Red Sox's plan -- enough to block the land-taking even under the most liberal interpretation.

But even opponents concede a few councilors could switch sides, as Menino attempts to win their support. In recent days, councilors have also felt pressure from labor unions seeking the construction jobs the $664 million project will generate.

In any case, issuing $140 million in city revenue bonds to acquire and clean up the ballpark site would still require a two-thirds vote by the council, giving opponents one last chance to kill the proposal. However, since the city's investment would be repaid through ticket and parking surcharges and a slight hike in the city's hotel tax, the vote to authorize bonds has been seen as less controversial than the proposed land-takings.

Some people close to the project note that since Menino has to have a two-thirds vote on bonding, he may decide to seek the same margin for land-takings as a hedge against possible legal challenges. "It gives the city some room to maneuver," said one source. "But how the mayor will present this to the council has not been cast in concrete."

Aside from the governor, who was a chief champion of the new ballpark bill, none of the lead players was present at yesterday's signing ceremony. The mayor's chief of staff, James Rooney, stood in for Menino, who was on his way to Los Angeles for the Democratic National Convention. House Speaker Thomas Finneran and Senate President Thomas Birmingham, who encouraged their members to pass the measure by an overwhelming margin 10 days ago, were attending to other business, state officials said.

Red Sox chief John Harrington was also absent from yesterday's celebrations. Team officials said he was vacationing with his family. General Manager Dan Duquette represented the team instead.

Duquette said that with the bill's passage the Red Sox had "crossed a major threshold" and the team was "aggressively pursuing our options on financing." But he declined to offer details on how the team would finance the $352 million to build the ballpark and pay for cost overruns related to acquiring land, site clean-up and construction.

Asked whether the Red Sox could scale down their proposed new ballpark to cut costs, Duquette said: "We are going to look at all the efficiencies we can create as far as making this project work. But the urban location make it very expensive and that's part of the reality of making this project work."

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 8/11/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

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