Jury favors county activists in libel action by developer Panel finds statements by group were 'false,' but he's public figure

June 12, 1998|By Andrea F. Siegel and Dan Thanh Dang | Andrea F. Siegel and Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

A Washington jury ruled in favor of South County activists yesterday, deciding that though some complaints in SACReD's letter about a millionaire real estate developer were false, they were not libelous.

SACReD is an acronym for South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development Inc.

The verdict ends a 2 1/2 -week trial in District of Columbia Superior Court, in which Dominic F. Antonelli, his Pointe Properties Inc. and another Pointe officer sought $50.2 million from the group, which has stymied efforts to develop 477 acres on the Shady Side peninsula.

Antonelli, whose bankruptcy in 1991 was the largest in Maryland history, is a Pointe officer, director and shareholder.

While the jury found that a letter SACReD mailed was "false and defamatory," the remarks were not intended to ruin Antonelli's reputation, said Jeffrey Harris, Antonelli's lawyer.

The eight-member jury considered Antonelli a public figure and not an ordinary citizen, which raised the standard for proving libel.

While it saw the other officer in the development company as a private citizen, the jury did not find SACReD was negligent.

"I know our three clients are glad the jury returned their reputations to them, which was always the principal objective we had," Harris said.

Said SACReD's lawyer, Anna Engh of Covington & Burling, which took the case without a fee: "We just felt that if a citizens group can't write to the government requesting an investigation -- that is the heart of the First Amendment right to free speech and the right of a citizen to petition the government."

SACReD tried unsuccessfully last year to get a Washington judge to declare the suit a SLAPP -- an acronym for "strategic lawsuit against public participation," a tactic to intimidate people so they don't speak out -- and dismiss it. But Superior Court Judge Lee F. Satterfield ruled that the District of Columbia does not recognize SLAPP suits.

Both sides said they hope the verdict will end years of skirmishes between Antonelli and opponents.

Officials of the South County Land Trust are negotiating to buy the 477 acres that were planned for Baldwin's Choice development of 152 homes.

Pointe Properties also has appealed county zoning officials' refusal to waive school-capacity limits for the community. Under county law, the development is stalled without the waiver because nearby schools are at or above capacity.

SACReD members pledged to "put our differences aside," with the goal of wetlands protection, according to SACReD's statement. " We never intended to malign or harm Mr. Antonelli, Pointe Properties, Mr. [Mitchell] Blankstein or anyone else. We simply wanted to ask questions about the process by which this environmentally sensitive land was purchased."

SACReD members have testified before the state Board of Public Works, organized rallies and letter-writing campaigns and courted media coverage to publicize their fears of crowded schools, wetlands damage and increased traffic on Shady Side Road, the peninsula's sole link to the rest of the county.

Antonelli claimed SACReD went too far in October 1996. Members wrote to officials, business executives, attorneys and the Capital newspaper in Annapolis questioning whether the developer was involved in secret liens and sweetheart land deals. Many of those questions remain unanswered.

The letters questioned the sale of Baldwin's Choice to Pointe Properties by Franklin Point Limited Partnership and asked government officials to investigate the land sale to determine whether bankruptcy laws were violated.

Shortly after the mailing, Antonelli's lawyer demanded an apology. SACReD refused, and Antonelli sued.

Pub Date: 6/12/98

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