Last stand against Lennar

Final lawsuit challenging Hunters Point redevelopment project awaits a judge's ruling

The 49ers want a new stadium -- but what's under the land?

Hunters Point, the last major swath of usable land in San Francisco, appears at first glance to be a developer's dream — a prime piece of real estate with sweeping views of the bay, ample space, and a city government eager to capitalize on its potential.

But community groups have filed lawsuits challenging the project's many uncertainties, such as the fate of the toxic stew beneath the former U.S. Navy base in the heart of the project area, and both sides are now awaiting a court ruling on whether more studies are needed.

As an EPA-designated Superfund site, the 500-acre plot is home to an abundance of buried chemical contaminants, radioactive waste, and other unknown toxins, and the Navy has been slow to clean it up. Concerned that development plans have been premature in the face of this lingering mess, opponents filed lawsuits against developer Lennar Corp. and the city last year.

The project, approved July 2010 by the Board of Supervisors, includes plans for a new stadium for the 49ers, 10,500 housing units, parks, and commercial retail space. It has received praise from city and state government agencies as an economic and cultural boon to the community. But activist groups say the cleanup should happen before development occurs.

The Sierra Club settled its lawsuit over the project after the developer made some design changes (see "Uncertain developments," Jan. 18), so the lawsuit filed by People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER) and Greenaction is the last piece of litigation holding up the project. At the core of the legal challenge is whether the environmental impact report (EIR) properly analyzed the health impacts from toxic contamination at the site. After an April 18 hearing on the case, both sides are awaiting a ruling on whether the claims have merit and should be the subject of further study.

Activists claim the EIR violates California Environmental Quality Act protocols because it contains too much uncertainty, including the unknown fate of a large parcel of land slated for a stadium that is contingent on whether the 49ers decide to stay in San Francisco. POWER wants more details about the possible threats to human health before the 20-year project gets the final green light. But since the Navy is responsible for the cleanup, Lennar and the city have repeatedly countered that a full analysis is not their responsibility.

"The main issue that Greenaction and POWER have been concerned about throughout lawsuit is that it's very unclear from the EIR what exactly is going to happen and what level of contamination will be left," said attorney George Torgun with EarthJustice, which is representing the community groups. "What are the impacts of building on a federal Superfund site? There is a real lack of knowledge in the EIR."

April 18 was the second of two recent hearings held on the case. On March 24, Judge Ernest H. Goldsmith listened to a full day of testimony before a packed courtroom. Subsequent settlement discussions weren't successful, so both sides returned to court to seek a ruling that is expected sometime in the next two months.

Lennar attorneys offered to relinquish the possibility of a pre-cleanup early transfer of the property, which has been a major concern for POWER. Under this proposal, no development on any of the six parcels slated for transfer from the Navy could proceed until the federally mandated cleanup process was finished and certified. However, POWER does not believe this offer reduces the scope of the issues because final approval would still ultimately award control of the land to the developer based on what they believe is a flawed EIR.

"Severing any discussion of early transfer from this EIR would only serve to worsen the defects that petitioners have identified and would be contrary to the requirements of CEQA," Torgun wrote in the April 13 letter to the court.

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