By Judith Scherr – February 20, 2015
BERKELEY — Calling their lawsuits against the U.S. Postal Service “test cases,” attorneys suing the U.S. Postal Service over its attempt to sell Berkeley’s century-old downtown post office said they believe a winning legal strategy will help save historic post offices across the country.
The attorneys, Brian Turner, with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Antonio Rossmann of Rossmann and Moore and representing the city of Berkeley pro bono, updated some 70 people at a community gathering Thursday night on legal strategies to save the post office.
“It’s a test case for a lot of other (U.S. Postal Service) disposals,” Turner told the gathering called by Citizens to Save the Berkeley Post Office. “On a broad, national level, the concern isn’t one or two (post offices).”
Both the National Trust and Berkeley filed suit against USPS in November in U.S. District Court.
Central to the lawsuits — and the question that could challenge post office sales around the country — are requirements of the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
According to Turner, USPS argues that it follows NHPA and NEPA requirements such as consulting with communities and assessing environmental impacts, but does so voluntarily.
USPS argues that it cannot be sued on its compliance with the acts, because it is not required to follow them and also argues that the lawsuits are moot because there is no pending sale.
USPS has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which will be heard March 19 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. If the judge rules against the motion to dismiss, the case will move forward and substantive issues will likely be heard in the fall.
Among those issues is plaintiffs’ contention that USPS violated NHPA’s requirement to listen to the Berkeley community and its unanimous city council which oppose any sale.
“That didn’t happen in Berkeley and it hasn’t happened in many of the (post office disposals) we’ve been involved in,” Turner said.
Rossmann noted, “That’s how these cases are won, when the government agency just bullheadedly refuses to listen.”
Further, NEPA requires an Environmental Impact Statement, a formal document that details the impacts the disposal of the post office would create.
Turner pointed to USPS’ closure of the historic post office in Ukiah and the negative impact it had on the surrounding small business community, noting, USPS “is going through unprecedented lengths to disagree about the nature of the impacts that are caused when they move out of a facility.”
Beyond preserving the building itself, Rossmann pointed to the negative impacts of the loss of postal services. “Loss of historic use can be an adverse affect,” he said.
The current status of the post office is that it is for sale, despite being removed from the CBRE website. CBRE is the realty company charged by USPS with the sale of a number of the nation’s historic post offices.
In November, the building was under contract for sale with local developer Hudson McDonald, who pulled out of the deal in December. Berkeley and the National Trust filed separate lawsuits when they found out about the pending sale; they also got a temporary restraining order preventing the sale.
After the sale was taken off the table, a judge lifted the TRO, but issued an order that the plaintiffs would get a 45-day notice of any pending sale, which, according to Rossmann, would give them time to file motions to address the sale.
In other actions to save the postal service, the Berkeley City Council on Feb. 10 unanimously supported a resolution to support the return of postal banking to the post offices, which housed those services from 1911 to 1967.
“Berkeley was the first in the country to call for postal banking,” Sharon Maldonado, with Citizens to Save the Berkeley Post Office, told the gathering, adding that postal banking is not only good for the post office, “it is helpful for people who are unbanked or underbanked.”