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— Years ago, when a high school friend talked about wanting to become a lawyer, Susan Brandt-Hawley, an aspiring writer, thought, "How dull."

Yet, after graduating Phi Beta Kappa from San Diego State University in 1974, Brandt-Hawley realized lack of life experience might result in writer's block, so she entered law school. At least becoming a lawyer requires writing skills.

Now Brandt-Hawley finds herself at the forefront of a courtroom drama involving millions of public dollars, thousands of baseball fans, and quality of life in downtown San Diego. She represents David, a group of 50 or so San Diegans who are members of Citizens Advocating Redevelopment Excellence (CARE), against a three-headed Goliath: the city of San Diego, its redevelopment agency known as the Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC), and the Padres baseball team.

Last week, a California superior court judge ruled in CARE's favor, concluding the city had broken the law by acquiring and preparing land for a proposed ballpark before completion of an environmental impact report. The judge ordered the city to stop those activities.

Stunned officials for the city and Padres claim they've done nothing illegal, that the CCDC has a right to seize property and upgrade utilities in downtown San Diego's East Village whether or not a ballpark is built. They characterize Judge Judith McConnell's ruling as only a temporary setback. As soon as the environmental impact report is certified on September 10, the CCDC plans to return with more offers to buy property, condemnation notices, and bigger water and sewer pipes. With bulldozers hovering to knock down historic warehouses and with construction crews poised to modify other landmark buildings, the stadium project will be back on track, they insist.

Brandt-Hawley, whose legal career has ascended on public agencies and real estate developers underestimating the power of California's environmental laws, says CARE's lawsuit isn't about a mere delay. "We want the city to fully explore alternatives," Brandt-Hawley said. "We want the environmental impact report to receive a fair review."

CARE jumped in to sue the city, she explained, because if the CCDC were to continue spending millions of dollars on seizing real estate, installing new utilities for the stadium, and relocating East Village's residents and business owners, the city council would be less likely to consider other locations or superior designs for the ballpark. The expenditure of so much money would lock councilmembers into the Padres' favorite spot, bordered by J Street, Harbor Drive, and Seventh and Eleventh Avenues.

CARE favors shifting the project to vacant lots two blocks east not only to save historic warehouses but also to preserve the character of East Village, a community of artists, produce vendors, and other merchants. The environmental impact report currently under review also describes several other ballpark sites and their effect on the environment.

"The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires public agencies to adopt feasible alternatives that meet the project goal while reducing environmental impacts," Brandt-Hawley said. "Just because an alternative costs more doesn't make it infeasible. So there's the possibility for some real change here."

Brandt-Hawley ought to know, according to experts in land use. Published court decisions for ten of her cases have set legal precedents, earning her a reputation as one of California's top environmental lawyers.

Over the past 18 years, Brandt-Hawley has worked to protect vernal pools, wetlands, rare wildflowers, redwood trees, spotted owls, rivers, and towns from development. Since saving a one-lane bridge in Northern California's Guerneville from the California Department of Transportation's (Caltrans) wrecking ball in 1988, she has taken on more and more cases involving historic sites. A charming 1905 brick house, which happens to be a registered landmark, serves as the Brandt-Hawley & Zoia law office in tiny Glen Ellen. From that base in scenic Sonoma County, once home to writer Jack London, she and law partner Rose Zoia travel statewide to tackle cases. Brandt-Hawley also lectures statewide about environmental issues, including her growing specialty of saving landmark buildings. "In California, historic preservation isn't just about cathedrals and museums," she said. "It's about movie theaters, bungalows, and department stores."

Passed in 1970, CEQA is relatively new so its application to construction projects has formed an esoteric and rapidly changing field of law. Brandt-Hawley is in the enviable position of winning lawsuits based on precedents established by her earlier victories.

"Susan Brandt-Hawley is synonymous with compliance to CEQA's mandate to reduce impacts to cultural and historic resources," said Marianne Greene, an environmental lawyer in San Diego. "She's prominent in this sub-specialty."

Greene thinks Brandt-Hawley has a reasonable shot at getting the proposed baseball stadium to budge. "If the city sticks with the Padres' choice for the ballpark site without seriously considering alternatives that have fewer environmental impacts, it could be exposed to another lawsuit." Greene is not a member of CARE, but she is concerned that the baseball park could destroy East Village. She often shops for produce at the Farmer's Bazaar, which is likely to be made part of the stadium. CARE's current lawsuit involves procedure -- that the city proceeded with the ballpark before completion of the report, Greene said. But the next suit could involve substance, whether the city is seriously trying to minimize environmental damage. "Someone else could litigate on the adequacy of the EIR. This doesn't boil down to a three-month delay."

Brandt-Hawley's work to prevent the city of Pasadena from burying a historic Macy's department store within a larger retail complex gives CARE members cause for optimism. The court recently ruled against the city for having failed to adopt a feasible alternative. Also, her 1997 case involving an old Montgomery Ward department store in downtown Oakland set a precedent that influences how public agencies view and treat historic structures, making them less likely to demolish landmark buildings and replace them with commemorative plaques.

Kevin Johnson, another environmental lawyer in San Diego, is less effusive about CARE's chances of moving the ballpark. CEQA allows public agencies to make "a statement of overriding considerations," Johnson said, enabling them to make a choice that's more damaging to the environment. "They can say, 'Based on all the considerations, in particular social and economic situations, we can live with the fact we're not mitigating all the impacts.' That's their defense."

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