Political football on Nicollet Island

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July 11, 2005 // UPDATED 1:56 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

A gridiron's size could decide if DeLaSalle gets parkland for an athletics complex

In the battle over Nicollet Island green space, one of the more curious questions is: What is a "regulation-sized" football field?

It, among several other issues, will be discussed July 20, when the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board holds a public hearing on DeLaSalle High School's request to build a joint-use athletic facility spanning its Nicollet island property and nearby parkland.

The issue pits many Island residents - who say public land is being given away - against a school seeking better student facilities.

Commissioners face a tough vote. However, if they go DeLaSalle's way, a recent legal opinion that previous agreements compel the facility's construction could provide Commissioners political cover.

Stopping that legal steamroller has become one Island residents' mission, and the debate could turn on what a "regulation" football field really is.

Lights, action?

A 1983 agreement between the Park Board and the Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA) outlined Nicollet Island's future development. It required the Park Board to build DeLaSalle an athletic facility, including a minimum of a "full- (regulation) size" football field and at least two tennis courts adjacent to school property.

DeLaSalle supporters say such a field means a home gridiron with bleachers and lights - a place not only for student athletes to play, but for classmates, parents, and supporters to watch and cheer.

Field opponents say a "full-size" field is a one big enough to play the game on, period. They say DeLaSalle already has a regulation field, built through earlier city concessions.

Recently, the Park Board hired outside attorney Mike Norton to review the 1983 contract and address unresolved issues.

Norton noted the agreement does not define the football field's size or location and does not require the Park Board to build any facilities related to the football field.

Still, he concludes that the Park Board is obligated to build the football field under certain conditions. A key one is that school and Park Board reach a reciprocal-use agreement.

Barry Clegg is a Nicollet Island resident opposed to DeLaSalle's plan. Like Norton, he's an attorney. Clegg argues that the Park Board has already met its legal obligation, sorting through old documents to make his case.

In 1984, a year after the Nicollet Island Agreement, DeLaSalle sought and received a 24-foot encroachment along a 460-foot stretch of Grove Street to build a new football field. Clegg sent Park Board Commissioners a copy of the City Council action and supporting documents.

They include a March 30, 1984 letter from DeLaSalle neighbor John Kerwin supporting the encroachment permit.

"Your goal of a regulation-sized field and a well-planned campus is certainly a worthy one," Kerwin wrote DeLaSalle.

Clegg said the Park Board limited the scope of Norton's review, never specifically asking whether the current football field and tennis courts met the Park Board's obligation.

"You can usually get any answer you want if you limit the scope of the question," Clegg wrote to Park Board Commissioners.

Don Siggelkow, general manager for administration, said staff probably would not seek further legal advice unless Commissioners request it. "I think we have already put $1,000 into it [legal advice]," he said. "That is probably my appetite for it."

Further, Siggelkow said he didn't think lawyers could resolve the question of what constitutes a "regulation" football field.

"I think it is a waste of legal fees. You have to make a judgment as to whether that fills the bill as a regulation football field," he said. "If people can't watch it, I don't think it is going to fill the bill. That is not a high school football field. There are no bleachers. There is no area beyond the sidelines for players."

More fundamentally, Clegg questions whether DeLaSalle has any legal rights under the 1983 agreement. DeLaSalle is not a party to the agreement, he wrote - a point Norton made in his opinion.

DeLaSalle officials say they have rights as a named beneficiary in the contract.

Even if the school had rights, they expired, Clegg counters.

The 1983 agreement gives the board eight years to finish its work - meaning by 1991, he said. Minnesota has a six-year statute of limitations on contracts, meaning anyone alleging a breach had to bring the action by 1997.

The Norton opinion hints at the issue. "[W]hile there is no time limit or expiration date in the agreement there may be statutory time limits on the enforcement of the agreement in the event of litigation," he wrote.

Lawsuit threat?

John Derus, a DeLaSalle board member, said the school is not wealthy, and only recently has had the financial ability to move forward on the athletic field plan.

He called the proposal a public-private partnership that would open the land to everyone. The Park Board should approve the idea on its merits, he said, irrespective of the legal claims.

If the Park Board allows DeLaSalle to build the facility, it must consult two other government entities.

The Nicollet Island Agreement requires the Park Board to submit any Nicollet Island plans to the MCDA for review and comment.

Chuck Lutz, deputy director of the Minneapolis Community Planning and Economic Development department, MCDA's successor, said the Park Board has not broached the issue with the city yet.

The Park Board also would have to get approval from the Metropolitan Council. The Council gave the Board $1.1 million to buy the parkland now proposed for conversion to the athletic complex.

The parkland has a restrictive covenant, limiting use to a regional park, Met Council staff says. A football field is not an eligible use. The Met Council would have to approve lifting the restriction. Under its policies, it could require the Park Board to buy comparable land for the regional park system.

Clegg said using regional park land for an athletic complex would contradict statements the Park Board made to the Metropolitan Parks and Open Space Commission at the time of the original agreement.

According to May 16, 1983 Open Space Commission minutes, Park Board staffer Al Wittman said, "the agreement between the Park Board and DeLaSalle would not affect the regional park land."

Clegg wrote Park Board Commissioners that the athletic field would violate other lease agreements. (Island homeowners lease land from the Park Board.) Those leases require the Park Board to develop the Island consistent with approved plans - and those plans don't include an expanded athletic complex.

"Building DeLaSalle a new field would breach these agreements, causing needless conflict and litigation," he wrote.

Is he threatening to sue?

"I am not threatening litigation," Clegg said. "I'm just pointing out that there are lots of stakeholders here with legally enforceable rights and that folks have an expectation that those covenants will be honored and enforced. It would be foolish to believe they could be circumvented without consequences."

The Park Board staff has a 12-point proposal to develop the shared-use athletic facility. The plan would prohibit the Park Board from spending public money to build the facility. It would give DeLaSalle field priority during the school year.

A vote on the plan could happen this year.