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Fresh Direct defends new Bronx facility against legal challenge

Bronx Times
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Lawyers for Fresh Direct went head-to- head in court March 4 with lawyers for a South Bronx group opposing the company’s move to the borough.

The online grocer is set to receive nearly $130 million in public subsidies, but has had to suspend construction at the Port Morris site while the lawsuit is pending in Bronx state Supreme Court.

New York Lawyers for the Public Interest filed a revised lawsuit in June on behalf of South Bronx Unite, challenging the constitutionality of its sublease with the Harlem River Yard, on city-owned land.

The lawsuit challenges that the state requires land leases to have a public purpose/benefit, that the project is ineligible for certain subsidies it has been offered, and that the company did not perform a proper analysis of how the site will effect area residents.

Although the company has promised to take green initiatives - including converting to a fleet of low emission natural gas and electric trucks - opponents involved in the lawsuit charge its current fleet will add to the local air pollution and block off public access to the waterfront.

Residents claim Fresh Direct relied on a environmental impact analysis from 1993, instead of conducting a new one, neglecting how the facility and its truck routes would effect their community.

If Bronx Supreme Court Justice Mary Ann Brigantti-Hughes sides with South Bronx Unite, Fresh Direct will have to conduct a new environmental impact study, causing them to lose some of their subsidies, but if the company wins the case, it can continue its move to the borough.

Judge Hughes reserved decision on the case after Monday’s court hearing.

The lawsuit also claims that the Fresh Direct facility would interfere with the intended use of its waterfront site, a stretch of state-owned but privately controlled land.

In a 1991 lease between the state and Harlem River Yard Ventures, the private company that runs the site, the lease requires that part of the 96-acre industrial yard be used as an intermodal rail hub that would reduce truck traffic and pollution.

The lawsuit charges that a full transportation hub has yet to be built and, if Fresh Direct moves in, one likely never will be built.

The lawsuit’s other main charge is that Fresh Direct is a direct-to-consumer retail company that should not have qualified for $19 million in tax credits through a state program intended for manufacturing and agriculture.

But lawyers for Fresh Direct say the facility would not affect future construction of an intermodal hub.

They also noted that some of the subsidies are for company actions such as hiring Bronx residents and developing an environmentally friendly truck fleet.

New York Lawyers for the Public Interest attorney Gavin Kearney told the Bronx Times he feels they made a strong case.

“We feel very good about the merits of our claims,” Kearney said. “I think we’ve done a good job of documenting a variety of environmental impacts that were overlooked by the city and Fresh Direct. The whole purpose of this relocaton is that they need room to grow, but they failed to look at how this growth would have impacts on the surrounding area.”

As the company works to resolve the lawsuit, six Bronx group have stepped up to support their relocation to the Bronx.

The Bronx Chamber of Commerce, Green Bronx Machine, Health People, Sylvia Center, Fedcap Rehabilitation Services, and Millbrook Houses Residents Association signed an amicus brief in support of Fresh Direct in the court case.

The groups said they support Fresh Direct’s borough move because of its commitment to creating jobs, increasing access to healthy foods and its record of environmental responsibility.

Kirsten Sanchez can be reach via e-mail at ksanchez@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 742-3394
Updated 4:55 pm, July 9, 2018
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