By Gary Chester, Senior Writer
Public objections over sports facilities are often directed at tax subsidies, but in one notable case it’s all about the environment and quality of life. In Norgaard-Larsen v. City of Phoenix, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 128673, (D. Az. 2021), two Arizona residents are suing the cities of Phoenix and Scottsdale over the development of the San Francisco Giants’ year-round training facility in Papago Park.
The plaintiffs are two individuals who alleged in a pro se complaint that the two cities unlawfully leased the land in Papago Park to the baseball team.
The defendants filed motions to dismiss the complaint and challenged the plaintiffs’ legal standing to bring the lawsuit.
“The City of Scottsdale is confident that it will prevail in this suit,” a Scottsdale spokesperson told the Arizona Republic. But the court dealt the defense a blow in refusing to dismiss the lawsuit outright.
Papago Park is a 1,500-acre park located between Tempe and Phoenix. Tempe residents voted in 2018 to designate the Tempe part of the park as a preserve. Phoenix owns the remaining 1,200 acres of land which is designated as a desert park and does not adhere to the same type of protections.
Phoenix leased nearly 37 acres of the park to Scottsdale in 2018; Scottsdale subleased it to the Giants for 25 years with an option to extend the lease for another 10 years. The Giants have played their spring training games at Scottsdale Stadium since 1986, but they began renovating the Papago Sports Complex for year-round training in 2019. The complex had been used by the Oakland Athletics until they moved to Mesa in 2014.
The plaintiffs base their case on a land deed issued in 1959 to Phoenix stating that the park should be used for “park, recreation, public convenience purposes, including the construction of a baseball stadium.”
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Friends of Papago Park (FOPP), a non-profit association of park users organized to protect the native habitat of the park. The complaint sets forth the following causes of action:
- Violation of the Land and Water Conservation Fund of 1965 (LWCFA);
- Violation of the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act (FPASA);
- The Property Clause of the U.S. Constitution; and,
- The Contracts Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Do the Plaintiffs Have Standing?
The court first addressed the issue of whether the plaintiffs had the right to bring the lawsuit. The court noted that the Constitution “grants the federal courts the power to hear only ‘Cases’ and ‘Controversies…Standing includes two components: Article III constitutional standing and prudential standing.’”
The court stated that prudential standing involves the question of whether the statute in issue grants a particular plaintiff the right to sue.
The Property Clause Claim
The Property Clause set forth in Article IV of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the authority to govern federal lands. The defendants argued that the third-party standing doctrine bars the plaintiffs from bringing this claim.
The court rejected the argument and explained that the third-party standing doctrine does not bar the plaintiffs from bringing their claim. The court stated: “The third-party standing doctrine bars litigants from raising another person’s legal rights…In Bond v. United States, the Supreme Court explained that ‘[a]n individual has a direct interest in objecting to laws that upset the constitutional balance between the National Government and the States when enforcement of those laws causes injury that is concrete, particular, and redressable.’”
The court held that the plaintiffs (users of Papago Park) have a direct interest in the defendants’ alleged use of excessive authority in permitting development of the training complex at the park. Thus, the Property Clause claim will continue.
The LWCFA and FPASA Claims and the Contracts Clause
The LWCFA is a 1965 law designed to promote citizen access to recreational facilities. The FPASA is a 1949 law relating to the use, management and transfer of federal lands. The court dismissed these claims because neither statute permits a private cause of action.
The Contracts Clause set forth in Article I of the Constitution restricts the power of the states to disrupt contractual arrangements. Since the plaintiffs did not allege that they have vested contractual rights, the court dismissed the Contracts Clause claim.
The defendants also raised a statute of limitations defense. The basis for the argument was that the lease and sublease were entered into in 2018 and the lawsuit was commenced in 2021 after Arizona’s two-year limitation period had expired. But the court ruled that the cause of action may not have accrued until September 2019, when a construction fence blocked one of the plaintiffs from entering a walking trail in the park.
A basic description of this controversy is that the plaintiffs assert that the federal government granted this land to the municipalities in 1959 for a public purpose (recreation) and that the defendants have no legal right to put it to private use. They also contend that the deed restricts development to a stadium and a training complex is substantially different from a stadium.
“When does it end?” Norgaard-Larsen told the Republic. “You can’t just keep chipping away at public lands.”