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Comer prepares legislation that could allow Commanders stadium at RFK

Rep. James Comer, chairman of the powerful congressional committee that oversees D.C., is preparing to introduce legislation that could ultimately allow the District to build a Washington Commanders football stadium or another mixed-use development at the decrepit RFK Stadium site — a major development in Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s pursuit to bring the team back to the city.

A House Oversight Committee spokesman confirmed Thursday that Comer (R-Ky.) is preparing the legislation that could allow D.C. to develop the RFK site, which is on federal land, although he stressed it would not be a land sale. The spokesman, Austin Hacker, said that details of the legislation have not been finalized and that talks are ongoing with Bowser’s office.

Comer’s legislation, once it is introduced, could mark a new chapter for D.C. as it competes with Maryland and Virginia for a chance to woo the Commanders to a new stadium from its current site in Prince George’s County, Md. Bowser (D) has long sought to bring the Commanders back to D.C. — although federal legislation freeing up the RFK site would be just a first step toward that goal, with a number of hurdles remaining, including a divided D.C. Council, whose members have differing opinions about how the site should be used.

Two people familiar with the planned legislation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations said it involved a lease extension, with one of those people describing it as a 99-year lease extension and modification — which would broaden the city’s options for what it could do with the land.

The current RFK lease between D.C. and the National Park Service is slated to end in 2038 and restricts land usage to sports, recreation and entertainment.

Should Comer’s legislation move forward, D.C. would probably have a seat at the negotiating table as the Commanders seek a new home among the city, Maryland and Virginia, upping the ante in a debate over the future of the team. The exact timing of the bill’s introduction was not clear Thursday.

Comer’s role in helping to shepherd the RFK deal somewhat resembles an olive branch after his House Oversight Committee earlier this year held several contentious hearings in which Republicans lambasted crime and public safety in D.C. But when Bowser appeared before the committee in May, she and Comer struck a cordial tone, with Comer and many other Republicans noticeably reserving their ire for the council. Comer, pledging a desire to work with the mayor, had expressed interest in taking a look at facilitating a “new arena” for the city.

“As Chairman Comer mentioned at the hearing with D.C. Mayor Bowser, he is interested in working with her and the city on a wide variety of issues, including the RFK Stadium site,” Hacker, the committee spokesman, said in a statement. “Committee staff continue to have fruitful discussions with the Mayor’s team and other stakeholders on these issues.”

Bowser’s office did not comment Thursday evening.

Bowser has enthusiastically pursued returning the Commanders to Washington as the team remakes its image, with a new name, a pending new owner and a search for a new home. And D.C. for years has hoped to obtain control of the massive slab of federal land at RFK — valuable real estate in a city that has limited spaces that large for new development.

But the D.C. Council last year split on whether the land should be used for a Commanders stadium, especially as controversy clouded the team.

Soon-to-be-former team owner Daniel Snyder was confronted with investigations into widespread sexual harassment within the organization, as well as allegations of financial impropriety — causing legislators in D.C., Virginia and Maryland to express trepidation about attracting the team, especially with taxpayer money.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) firmly opposed a stadium. And Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said she would not introduce federal legislation allowing the District to purchase RFK until Mendelson and Bowser reached an agreement on the terms and conditions of the legislation. Bowser and Mendelson had not been able to get to that point amid disagreements about the land use.

But with the looming sale of the Commanders to Josh Harris, the politics have somewhat shifted and the search for a new stadium has been reinvigorated.

Comer’s decision to introduce the bill circumvents Norton, who in previous years has led legislation to sell the land, and also circumvents her stated requirement that Bowser and Mendelson must reach an agreement. Mendelson recently said that he was waiting for the NFL’s investigative report into sexual harassment within the organization to be released before reaching any conclusion about RFK.

In a statement Thursday reacting to news of Comer’s expected legislation, Norton said she still viewed a consensus between Bowser and the council as the best route forward.

“Chairman Comer has repeatedly demonstrated a fixation for meddling in D.C.’s affairs in his committee’s recent hearings, even though he is not a D.C. resident and he does not represent D.C. in Congress,” Norton said. “The future of the RFK site should be decided by a consensus between the D.C. Council and the Mayor, who have been entrusted to represent the best interests of D.C. residents.”

The team’s upper management has in the past shown enthusiasm about returning to what its president, Jason Wright, has called “the spiritual home of the team.” The team’s vice president of public affairs, Joe Maloney, and the team’s lobbyist, Matthew Cutts of Dentons, have been actively encouraging members of Congress to support D.C. getting control of RFK.

But exactly what kind of proposal — if any, in the middle of a tough budget year — that D.C. could make to attract the Commanders to RFK remains unclear. The city must also contend with the needs of other professional sports teams already in the District, including the Nationals, Wizards, Capitals and Mystics, which have their own requests for maintenance and upgrades at existing stadiums and arenas. And disagreement on the council about whether to bring the Commanders to RFK has yet to be resolved.

Comer’s legislation is likely to revive that debate if it moves through Congress.

The last time an RFK bill was introduced in Congress was 2019, by Norton. The House Natural Resources Committee also held a hearing on the legislation in 2017, and the then regional director of the NPS National Capital Region expressed support for the city gaining control of RFK, but the effort ultimately failed to lead to change.

A House Natural Resources spokesperson declined to comment.

Nicki Jhabvala and Michael Brice-Saddler contributed to this report.


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