The Steelers are employing the legal equivalent of a quick-strike offense in a bid to end their dispute with local officials over financing for a proposed 3,000-seat expansion at Heinz Field.
The team asked Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Joseph James at a hearing Thursday to rule in its favor -- without the need for a trial -- based solely on the language in the stadium lease.
In a request for a partial summary judgment, Arthur H. Stroyd Jr., an attorney for the team, argued that a clause in the lease requires the Pittsburgh-Allegheny County Sports & Exhibition Authority to cover two-thirds of the cost of a "designated expansion" of no more than 10,000 seats.
He maintained that such an expansion automatically is deemed a capital improvement under the lease. As a result, the Steelers do not have to meet the criteria for a capital improvement in the document -- mainly that the addition or modification must have been installed in at least half of all NFL stadiums with at least 25 percent of the cost covered by federal, state or local governments.
But Walter DeForest, the SEA's attorney, said the team is misreading the lease's signals. He contended that the language cited by the Steelers didn't mean the team didn't have to meet the criteria for a capital improvement. It simply limited any expansion to no more than 10,000 seats, he said.
"It does not say what Mr. Stroyd implies," he said.
He also objected to Mr. Stroyd's contention that the SEA was using its interpretation of the lease language as a "smokescreen" because of its failure to set aside enough money to fund the seat expansion, which is estimated to cost $30 million. The SEA has about $4 million in the Heinz Field capital reserve fund.
"I don't make a smokescreen argument," he said. "Our argument's based upon the language of the lease."
The Steelers took the dispute to court after a deal to finance the addition fell apart. The proposed agreement would have funded the extra seats through a $1 increase in an existing surcharge on Steelers tickets and a new parking surcharge of $2 to $3 at lots around Heinz Field during home games.
Team officials had hoped to have the new south endzone seats in place before the start of next season, but they have since given up on that idea because of the dispute over the financing.
In a statement released after Thursday's court session, Mark Hart, the Steelers' director of strategic planning and development, called the hearing "an important step in the process to make sure the SEA lives up to its clear obligations" under the lease.
"The expansion of Heinz Field will allow an opportunity for more Steelers fans to attend games. It is unfortunate that it has come to this after negotiating with the SEA for months. If this matter is not resolved in the near future, another year of increased fan attendance and increased tax revenue will be lost," he said.
Mr. Hart said that if there is no resolution to the dispute by early September, the Steelers will not be able to have the new seats in place for the 2014 season.
But SEA executive director Mary Conturo had a different take on Thursday's court battle.
"We have been looking forward to this day and having this process begin. We expect that this process will provide clarification so that we are all clear on our proper roles and responsibilities. Then all parties can move forward constructively."
Judge James said after the hearing that he would rule on the request for partial summary judgment within a week.
The dispute over the seats is part of a larger fight over Steeler demands to be reimbursed $5 million for installing a new control room at the stadium. The team also wants the SEA to pay the full $3.65 million cost for adding a new scoreboard at the north end of Heinz Field.
While the Steelers and SEA battle it out in court, the team's intrastate rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles, are planning a $125 million expansion of Lincoln Field that will include 1,600 new seats and two new high-definition video boards. The Eagles will pay for the expansion, with help from the NFL on the financing.
Mark Belko: email@example.com or 412-263-1262. First Published June 13, 2013 5:45 PM