USPS Environmental Assessment on historic Stamford post office runs into problems

February 17, 2014

There have been several new developments in the story of the historic Stamford post office.  Last week, the Postal Service filed a status report with the PRC about its search for a new location, and earlier this month, the USPS filed papers in federal court opposing the complaint that has held up its sale of the building to Westchester developer Louis Cappelli. 

In addition, attorneys for the National Post Office Collaborate, one of the parties that filed the complaint, have responded to the Postal Service’s Environmental Assessment on the property with a scathing critique.  They say the EA is "procedurally and substantively defective in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and the USPS’s own guidelines."

At this point, it looks as though the lawsuit and the future of the Stamford post office are a long way from being resolved.  Here’s a rundown on these latest developments.


The search for a new location

The Postal Service’s status report on the emergency suspension was filed on February 14, as directed by the PRC’s order dismissing the appeal, which was issued at the end of January.  The Postal Service says that it has been working since September to find a new location for the post office, and it has its eye on a couple of possibilities. 

It’s clear from the status report that the Postal Service has no intention of reopening retail operations at the current location.  That was pretty clear back on September 20, when the Postal Service closed the Stamford post office on two days’ notice.  What's less clear is why the post office closed to begin with. 

When the Postal Service gave notice in September that the post office would be closing in a couple of days, it explained that the building was being sold (the closing date was supposed to take place the following week) and no new location had yet been arranged.  A couple of weeks later, however, after the lawsuit was filed to stop the sale, the Postal Service came up another explanation — the post office was put under emergency suspension due to unsafe conditions in the building, discovered on a safety inspection in early September. 

Both explanations seemed dubious.  There was a provision in the sales agreement allowing the Postal Service to remain in the building after the sale, so why would the pending sale necessitate suspending operations?  The condition of the building has been deteriorating for years, and most of the problems are in parts of the building that aren't even used, so why close the post office suddenly over saftey issues?  And what prompted an inspection less than a month before the building was to be sold?  These questions remain unanswered.  

In any case, finding a new location for the post office has turned out to be something of a problem.  It's not very easy finding space in downtown Stamford, where rents are high and parking is at a premium.  The Postal Service may have started the search for a location in earnest back in September, but it has known since 2009 that it would eventually need a new location, and it still hasn’t found one.  

The PRC will probably keep its eye on the progress toward opening a new location.  If the Postal Service does not open a facility elsewhere in Stamford, the appeal, which was dismissed "without prejudice," will probably be resubmitted on the grounds that the suspension was actually a de facto discontinuance.

Preservationists oppose change to USPS NEPA regulations on property disposal

February 14, 2014

A coalition of historic preservationists and citizen groups has filed comments opposing a change in the Postal Service's NEPA regulations that would make it easier to dispose of historic post offices.  The coalition includes the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Post Office Collaborate, the La Jolla Historical Society, the California Preservation Foundation, the Los Angeles Conservancy, and the City of Berkeley.  The coalition's letter to the Postal Service is here.

The letter comes in response to the Interim Final Rule that the Postal Service published in the Federal Register on January 13.  The rule change concerns a revision of 39 CFR Part 775, the section of the federal regulations that deals with procedures for implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). 

The rule change expands the scope of the Categorical Exclusion (CATEX) in a way that makes it less likely the Postal Service would need to a full Environmental Assessment or an Environmental Impact Statement when it disposes of its properties.  The aim of the change is to make it easier to sell post offices.  The Postal Service would not need to worry about hiring consultants to do an environmental review, providing opportunity for a lot of public participation, sharing the administrative record with the public, and following similar requirements that could slow down the sale or prevent it altogether. 

By publishing an “interim final rule” rather than simply an "interim rule," the Postal Service has already skipped a step where the public could have commented on the rule change before it was implemented.  Instead, the Postal Service made the effective date of the rule change the same day that it published the notice in the Federal Register.  The notice invites comments, but it's not likely they'll do any good.  The Postal Service says it will review any adverse comments it receives and then publish a final rule with its responses to the comments and any modifications it finds necessary.

The Postal Service apparently believed it was appropriate to implement the rule change before receiving comments because, as it states in the interim final rule, it does not believe the proposed revision “should be significant or controversial.” 

But nothing could be further from the truth: The proposed change is extremely significant and controversial, as laid out in the coalition's letter.  It begins as follows:

We are troubled by the abrupt notice of the change as we believe that retaining the current categorical exclusion (CATEX) in the Procedures is more consistent with NEPA’s goal to “prevent or eliminate damage to the environment.” Further, we strongly disagree with the assumption that this update should not be “significant or controversial.” The revised rule will result in less public scrutiny of consequential decisions to sell the Nation’s historic assets at a time of heightened public interest and should be rejected.

The letter goes on to identify several specific issues.

Premature motion: PRC dismisses bid to view non-public Amazon docs

February 13, 2014


Almost three months ago, I filed a request with the Postal Regulatory Commission seeking access to documents filed under seal in the docket that dealt with the Postal Service’s deal with Amazon to deliver its parcels on Sundays.  Last week, the PRC finally responded to the request. 

The Commission ruled that my motion was “dismissed without prejudice” as being “premature,” meaning I could resubmit the request again when the time was ripe — sometime next year.  I was also advised to confer with the Postal Service and Amazon "in an effort to resolve the request for access in a mutually agreeable fashion."  The Postal Service and Amazon had both filed briefs vehemently opposing my request, but somehow we were supposed to confer together and thereby "resolve the dispute without court action."  

This seems like a strange way to respond to a request for access to non-public documents, and the whole story illustrates the disturbing lack of transparency in how the Postal Service conducts its business — and with PRC approval to boot. 

The Senate puts the PRC in the backseat — or maybe not even in the car

February 9, 2014


On Thursday of this past week, the Senate held the second of two markup sessions on the postal reform bill, a.k.a. the manager’s or substitute amendment, submitted by Senators Carper and Coburn.  At the first session held the previous week, on January 29, a controversy arose over Section 301 of the proposed bill, which deals with postal rates and the role of the Postal Regulatory Commission.  The controversy resumed on Thursday.  

As originally proposed in the manager’s amendment, Section 301 does several things.  First, it takes the exigent rate increase that the PRC approved on a temporary basis and makes it the new base line.  The bill thus essentially overturns the PRC’s ruling in December and makes the 4.3 percent increase permanent, rather than limiting it to the time frame required to bring in $2.8 billion in profit (about 18 months to two years).

Section 301 also raises the current limit on annual rate increases from the CPI to the CPI plus one percent.  That would all but guarantee higher annual rate increases over the next few years.

In addition to dealing with these two specific rate matters, Section 301 transfers much of the responsibility for setting postal rates in the future from the PRC to the Postal Board of Governors.  The PRC’s role would be reduced to reviewing the BOG’s decision after the fact, rather than approving increases before they’re implemented. 

Finally, Section 301 gives the BOG the primary role in a 2017 rewrite of the ratemaking system.  The PRC can have some input and it will be able to veto the revision, but that's about all.

As Senator Carper explained at Thursday's markup, he and Senator Coburn decided to give the PRC "a very minimal role in terms of actually deciding what that new rate structure would look like" in the 2017 rewrite.  "We really put the Postal Service in the driver’s seat.  I don’t even know if the PRC was in the car, but certainly the Postal Service was in the driver’s seat.”  (video at 2:03:40)

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