ALAMEDA -- A developer rightfully acquired surplus federal property near Robert W. Crown Memorial State Beach through an auction and the federal government's plan to use eminent domain to secure nearby McKay Avenue is the best way to upgrade the street and facilitate the sale, according to an official at the U.S. Department of Justice.

The East Bay Regional Park District, which is suing the city over the decision to rezone the neighborhood for housing, was also given enough notice that the 4-acre parcel was to be auctioned, the U.S. department's Andrew Goldfrank said in March 11 letter to state Attorney General Kamala Harris' office.

"In fact, (federal authorities) delayed auction of the Alameda sale property to allow EBRPD to obtain an appraisal," said Goldfrank, who works with the department's Environment and Natural Resources Division.

Goldfrank's comments were in response to a Nov. 7 letter from John Devine from Harris' office, which said it was "extraordinarily troubled" that McKay Avenue may end up in private hands.

Along with the park district lawsuit, the effort by developer Tim Lewis Communities to build homes on the surplus federal property has prompted a citizens group to launch a petition drive to place a measure on the November ballot, calling for the area to be designated as open space.

In his letter, Goldfrank noted the General Services Administration, which hosted the June 2011 auction, conveyed the street to the state in 1961 so it could be used for the park and that federal authorities have recently spent more than $1.5 million to upgrade the Alameda Federal Center.

"However, the shared infrastructure underlying McKay Avenue has not been modernized and the roadway has not been maintained, leading to ongoing problems," he said.

The purchaser of the surplus property would be required to modernize the roadway and utilities as part of any future development, Goldfrank said.

"We are extraordinarily troubled by GSA's intent to take public land for a private developer's benefit," Devine said in the Nov. 7 letter that prompted Goldfrank's response.

Known as Neptune Pointe, the property is located along McKay Avenue west of Crown Beach and is near the park district's Crab Cove Visitor Center.

The neighborhood was one of several where the Alameda City Council adopted zoning changes last year to meet the city's affordable housing and other residential needs.

The changes brought the Housing Element of the city's General Plan into compliance with state law, which city officials say was necessary to be eligible for grants for transportation and other projects.

In its lawsuit, the East Bay park district contends the council did not provide proper notice about switching the zoning from administrative and office use to multifamily residential, and the council approved the change without a completed Environmental Impact Report.

Alameda officials maintain the district's lawsuit is an attempt to reverse the auction outcome.

"Ultimately, the federal excess land ought to be owned and controlled by the state of California or the East Bay Regional Park District because that indisputably would be the best and highest use of it," Devine said. "The question now facing the federal government is how that can be accomplished in a manner that safeguards the interests of all."

Goldfrank noted the auction of the property was advertised in the Alameda Journal and other publications.

Reach Peter Hegarty at 510-746-1654 or follow him on Twitter.com/Peter_Hegarty.

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