Bills seek to protect activists from suits They would restrict developers who sue foes of their projects

March 10, 1998|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Concerned that big developers might be using the threat of lawsuits to intimidate those who oppose their projects, some Baltimore-area lawmakers are pushing legislation that would protect community groups from such suits.

One bill with 10 sponsors passed the House of Delegates by a 129-4 vote, while a Senate version is due for a committee hearing March 18. The bills are a reaction to suits filed in recent years by developers working in Harford, Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Frederick counties.

"It's used to intimidate the little guy, to deter people from participating in the public process," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Democrat whose district straddles the city and Baltimore County and who has pushed such legislation for several years.

But the measure faces a rocky reception in the state Senate, where the Judicial Proceedings Committee chairman, Sen. Walter M. Baker, calls it "the stupidest bill ever introduced" and where business leaders are expected to denounce it as an infringement on their rights. A similar bill died without a vote in the Cecil Democrat's committee last year.

"We believe [a suit] is a perfectly reasonable and rational defense," said Champe C. McCulloch, president of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. The bills, according to the chamber, "will allow those who want to scuttle a project to say just about anything, so long as they do it in good faith."

The bills would restrict what supporters call a "SLAPP" or Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. They use the term to describe defamation, libel or other suits by developers against those who speak out against their proposals at public hearings and elsewhere.

J. Carroll Holzer, a Towson attorney who specializes in representing community groups against developers, said such lawsuits are "designed to chill the opposition."

'Nightmare' suits

Proponents of the bills note a number of lawsuits in recent years that they say fit the description:

Kenneth Rucker, a Frederick County man who rallied Point of Rocks residents against a trash recycling project in 1993, faced a $1.5 million defamation lawsuit, later dismissed on appeal. "It was a nightmare," Rucker said.

In Anne Arundel County, a developer has sued a community group for $52 million in connection with the group's opposition to a proposed 154-home development near Shady Side. A Washington Superior Court judge has denied a motion to declare it a SLAPP suit.

In Harford County, opponents of a proposed rubble landfill were faced with a $2.7 million lawsuit that was settled out of court in 1991, although the dispute continues.

In Baltimore County, the Back River Neck Community Association, the Holly Neck Improvement Association and the Avenue newspaper face a $3.5 million suit over a Holly Neck newsletter item on a landowner seeking to rezone and replace 22 old summer shore homes.

Groups ask for bill

"I can't discuss the case. It's still in litigation," said Keith Roberts, president of the Holly Neck association, which was among the eastern county groups that asked state Sen. Michael J. Collins, an Essex Democrat, to introduce his version of the bill.

The Collins-Rosenberg bills would assure that community groups are not civilly liable for "communicating with a federal, state or local government body or the public at large" about any matter under government review. Residents also could ask a court to dismiss such a suit or stop legal proceedings until the original issue is resolved.

Residents "shouldn't be penalized for expressing their opinions in good faith," Collins said.

Similar legislation

George W. Pring, a University of Denver Law School professor and co-author with Penelope Canan of a book on such lawsuits, said that 12 states have adopted similar legislation since 1990 and that they have been upheld by their state courts.

But opponents say residents already are protected.

"If a suit brought by a builder against an association is frivolous, there are court rules to allow a judge to throw it out," said Steven Wise, government affairs officer with the Maryland State Builders' Association and an opponent of the bills. "A new law is not needed."

'Time and energy' spent

Supporters, however, argue that simply defending against a lawsuit can be ruinously expensive.

Rucker, the Frederick County resident whose group withstood such a suit, estimates that Towson lawyer Kieron Quinn gave the equivalent of $100,000 in free legal services to defend the case.

The process also can take a heavy toll on community activists.

"We have had to spend an unbelievable amount of time and energy" fighting the suit, says Amanda Spake, spokeswoman for the Anne Arundel County group involved in the Shady Side lawsuit.

Anna Engh, a partner in the prestigious Washington law firm Covington and Burling, is defending that group without charging for her time.

"It's dead center of what the First Amendment is all about," she said. "The practical effect is a lot of energy is diverted."

Sun staff writer Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 3/10/98

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