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Judge deals setback to Steelers' quest to expand Heinz Field

| Wednesday, June 19, 2013, 4:48 p.m.

An Allegheny County judge on Wednesday sacked the Pittsburgh Steelers' plans to have taxpayers help pay to add 3,000 seats to Heinz Field, saying the team failed to meet certain terms of its lease with the city-county Sports & Exhibition Authority.

In his ruling denying the team's motion for a partial judgment, Common Pleas Judge Joseph M. James said the Steelers failed to show that an addition or modification was installed in at least half of the 30 other NFL stadiums with at least 25 percent of the cost borne by federal, state or local governments. Under those circumstances, the SEA could be compelled to pay.

The dispute over the cost of additional seating in the south end of the 12-year-old stadium — in addition to a disagreement over a scoreboard in the north end zone and upgrades to an audio-visual control room — will be settled at a late-season trial on Dec. 4. The cost of the upgrades has been estimated at about $40 million.

Steelers spokesman Burt Lauten said in a statement that the team was disappointed in James' decision but looks forward to presenting its full case.

“We remain confident in our legal and factual position. Our lease clearly sets out the obligations the SEA agreed to perform regarding our proposed improvements at Heinz Field. We are simply asking that the SEA live up to its contractual obligations, as agreed to over a decade ago, just as we have lived up to our obligations during the past 12 years,” Lauten said. “Further delays by the SEA in honoring its legal obligations will put the expansion and improvements at Heinz Field in jeopardy.”

At a hearing last week, Steelers attorney Arthur H. Stroyd Jr. said the taxpayer-funded SEA should have to pay two-thirds of the cost of the seats, or about $20 million, because it is a capital improvement.

Walter DeForest, an attorney representing the SEA, contended the upgrade is a “modification” and does not meet the lease's definition of a capital improvement.

Stroyd wrote in an email that the judge's ruling means he'll have to establish what the parties intended with regard to expanded seating when they signed the lease in 2000 by taking the depositions of those who negotiated the lease.

“Judge James was simply not able to discern that intent despite the language of the lease,” he said.

DeForest and SEA Executive Director Mary Conturo could not be reached for comment.

The Steelers filed the lawsuit against the SEA after a deal to finance the addition fell apart. A proposed agreement would have paid for the expansion by charging fans an extra dollar to buy a ticket to games and adding $2 to $3 to the cost to park near Heinz Field during home games.

The Steelers initially planned to install the seats before the start of this season but could not because of the dispute. Stroyd said last week that if there is no resolution by September, construction would be delayed until before the 2014-15 season.

With 65,050 seats, Heinz Field ranks 25th out of 31 NFL stadiums in seating capacity, and the Steelers have sold out every game since 1972. Thousands of fans are on a wait list for season tickets.

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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