Crisfield shipyard owner awarded $397,000 in suit against 4 city officials

September 15, 1991|By David Michael Ettlin James Bock and William F. Zorzi Jr. of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

The owner of a small Crisfield shipyard proved last week that you can beat city hall -- or at least the people running it -- by winning a $397,000 damage award from the mayor and three councilmen he blamed for a busted land deal.

Shipyard owner Logan J. Manders' suit against the present and former city officials focused on the failure of Crisfield's "Project Phoenix" -- a state-supported $300,000 urban renewal plan born in the ashes of an Oct. 11, 1987 arson that burned two blocks of Main Street.

Although the suit originally included the city itself, it was amended to name only the public officials individually as defendants -- holding them personally responsible for actions described as illegal and "beyond the scope of their responsibilities."

The verdict "ought to explain to these officials that they have to conduct themselves within the law," Mr. Manders, a 63-year-old boat builder and marine consultant, said Friday.

While city officials proposed to revitalize the burned-out area by building a shopping complex, "they wound up with a parking lot for 35 cars that no one uses and a bathroom -- the park and pee," Mr. Manders said. A $25,000 grant from the state Department of Natural Resources paid for the toilets.

Worse yet, he complained, city officials didn't inform him of the change in plans.

Within days of the Oct. 11 blaze, then-council members Roland H. Brown, Allison Milbourne and C. Larry Tyler passed a resolution designating the burned-out area, along with Mr. Manders' shipyard property, an urban renewal area. (Only Mr. Brown is still on the council.)

The suit alleged that a representative of Mayor Richard D. Scott and the Crisfield government contacted Mr. Manders about the same time, seeking support for the renewal plan and for rezoning to change the area's designation from industrial-commercial to tourist-maritime usage.

The plan was formally adopted in February 1988, calling for "an aesthetically attractive mini-shopping mall and pedestrian way," according to the suit.

The state and the city of Crisfield entered into an agreement for a $521,500 community development block grant -- $300,000 of which was to pay for rebuilding the burned-out area, according to state officials. The balance of the state-administered federal funds was to go toward construction of a marine industrial park at another location.

Mr. Manders claimed that city representatives, "at the behest" of the councilmen and Mayor Scott, informed him that the "boat repair business was incompatible with the plan and 'precluded' by it."

The town officials encouraged Mr. Manders to seek "a more compatible use" for his property fronting on the Little Annemessex River, he said.

But while Mr. Manders was being led to believe the city was going forward with Project Phoenix, the city officials were quietly changing it -- without public hearings or notification to affected property owners, he alleged in the suit.

The shipyard owner said that he did not realize the mini-mall was not going to be built until 18 months later, when he saw the Tawes lumberyard burned out by the fire being rebuilt -- on a site that was virtually at the heart of Project Phoenix.

By then, Mr. Manders said, he had turned his time and resources from his boatyard business to seeking an alternative use for the shipyard site, retaining an architect to design a development of 70 town houses, "each with its own private pleasure boat slip," and obtaining the necessary permits. He also had entered into a formal contract with a prospective buyer for the land and town house development, at a purchase price of $1.25 million. But the deal fell through when the officials gutted Project Phoenix, he alleged.

The witnesses at last week's two-day trial in Somerset County Circuit Court included the owners of two businesses destroyed by the 1987 fire who said they felt they had lost money in having had to sell out to the city for the urban renewal project that was never built.

One of them, James L. Slipper Jr., who owned the Sea Island furniture store, said that he was ready to rebuild 30 days after the fire, but the city condemned his property and he was forced to take a settlement.

"It was not my choice," Mr. Slipper said, adding he was never notified when Project Phoenix was abandoned. "I felt like I should have been owed the courtesy to be kept abreast of what was going on."

"We had to take what the city offered," said the other witness, Sally Parks, who leased the destroyed Crisfield Room restaurant and Cozy Corner cafe and is considering her own legal action over it. "I lost my livelihood plus two buildings, two of the most valuable pieces of property in Crisfield."

A former Crisfield police chief, Norman C. Swift III, was charged with arson last year in the 1987 fire. He pleaded guilty last November to the lesser charge of non-feasance in office.

The jury ruled Tuesday that the Crisfield officials were liable for $97,000 in actual damages and $100,000 in punitive damages for intentional misrepresentation, and an additional $200,000 for intentional interference in Mr. Manders' contractual relationship with the prospective buyer.

The defendants could not be reached. Their attorney, Tony Bruce, who is Crisfield's city solicitor, said there would be no comment.

"I have been instructed by officials to take the necessary means to secure a reversal," he said. Mrs. Parks said she was not surprised by the jury's decision.

"No jury in the world would have come out any other way," she said, adding that Mr. Manders "beat city hall. He'll go down in history. He did it."

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