Group's attorney decries libel suit Developer seeks $52 million from resident organization

January 27, 1997|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

An attorney for opponents of a large South County development says a multimillion-dollar libel suit against them is nothing more than a threat to shut them up. Members of the South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development (SACReD) are being sued for $52 million over a letter they distributed about Pointe Properties Inc. questioning the developer's property-buying practices.

Attorneys for SACReD have asked Superior Court of the District of Columbia to dismiss the suit on grounds it is a SLAPP -- that's a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or simply, a tactic to intimidate people so they don't speak up to officials about issues of concern.

If the court decides it is a SLAPP, the libel suit against SACReD -- a Shady Side peninsula association of residents, civic and professional groups -- will be one of the largest SLAPP suits filed in the region, said F. Paul Bland Jr., a Baltimore attorney representing the group.

"This community group was speaking out about a matter of public concern," he said. "Now they've found themselves hit with an enormous threat of liability."

The lawsuit by the Washington-based developers is the most recent escalation in a two-year battle between SACReD and Pointe, which wants to build 154 single-family homes. The project, to be known as Baldwin's Choice, is in a 477-acre subdivision formerly known as Franklin Point.

SACReD members have testified before the state Board of Public Works, organized rallies, held letter-writing campaigns and courted media coverage to publicize their fears about the development. Those include increased traffic on Shady Side Road, the peninsula's one link to the rest of the county; adding more students to crowded schools; and building in an environmentally sensitive area.

SACReD vowed to keep fighting even after the developers, in a breakthrough two months ago, won a permit from the state Board of Public Works to build on wetlands.

First Amendment watchdogs should keep a close eye on the case, said George W. Pring, a lawyer and professor at the University of Denver College of Law. He and sociologist Penelope Canan co-wrote a book published last year called, "SLAPP: Getting Sued for Speaking Out."

Thousands of SLAPP suits have been filed across the country since 1970 to stop people from exercising their right to petition the government, Pring said. Real estate developers are among the biggest generators of such suits, he said.

"We have to be worried about the big issue , and that is the extremely chilling effect these suits have on democracy," Pring said. "Although SLAPPs lose at the highest rate of any kind of lawsuit filed in America, in real life it is a serious, devastating and effective tool some groups use to silence their opponents.

"It's very intimidating to be on the receiving end of one of these lawsuits," Pring said.

Pointe claims that SACReD wrote letters in October that defamed the developers by accusing them of being involved in secret liens and sweetheart land deals. The letter went to public officials, business executives, attorneys and the Annapolis Capital newspaper.

The suit contends that SACReD published a letter that "falsely and maliciously" accused the developers of bankruptcy fraud and bank fraud. SACReD called into question the sale of Baldwin's Choice from Franklin Point Limited Partnership to Pointe Properties after finding that Dominic F. Antonelli -- a Pointe officer, director and shareholder -- was involved in a bankruptcy.

"The sale was, in fact, consummated in a collusive manner at substantially less than fair market value," according to SACReD's letter, which also indicated concerns about a possible intent by the developers to defraud creditors.

Group members say their letter merely asked officials to investigate the sale of the land and to determine whether or not bankruptcy laws were violated.

Efforts to reach Pointe Properties officials or spokesmen were unsuccessful.

No court date has been set.

Pub Date: 1/27/97

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