Homeowner sues activist

Island house is at heart of argument

suit accuses defamation

May 26, 2006|By PHILLIP MCGOWAN | PHILLIP MCGOWAN,SUN REPORTER

A homebuilder embroiled in a legal battle over his illegally built house on a Magothy River island has filed a $3.5 million defamation lawsuit against the environmentalist leading the fight to have it razed.

Daryl C. Wagner has accused Paul Spadaro, president of the Magothy River Association, of making false verbal and written statements that have hurt his business reputation and in general "discouraged others in the community from having a good opinion" of Wagner "and/or from associating or dealing with" him. Wagner owns Wagner Homes Inc.

According to a court summons issued May 5 in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, Wagner seeks $1 million in compensatory damages and $2.5 million in punitive damages.

Wagner's attorney, Jeffrey S. Marcalus, would not say specifically how Spadaro defamed Wagner or hurt his business because the case is in litigation.

"He knows what he has said and what he has done to give rise to this lawsuit," Marcalus said.

Spadaro has demanded that Wagner tear down his home, which is more than 5,000 square feet and has a replica lighthouse, pool and waterfront gazebo on Little Dobbins Island, in the county's northeast corner. County inspectors discovered the home on the nearly two-acre island, which Wagner owns, in 2004. A county administrator last year granted Wagner retroactive variances to keep his home but not the accessory structures.

The Magothy River Association, along with the state Critical Area Commission and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, has appealed that ruling to the county Board of Appeals.

Hearings before the board continued this week, and a ruling is not expected before fall.

The county has also filed a lawsuit against Wagner in Circuit Court that seeks to demolish the house, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is investigating whether Wagner violated federal law in building on Little Dobbins Island.

Spadaro, who has served as volunteer president of the environmental group since at least 2000, said his organization would not back down in face of the defamation lawsuit. "I don't think we should be bullied like this," Spadaro said. "This sets a nasty precedent."

Spadaro has been among several activists who said that allowing Wagner to keep his home could encourage others to flout land-use laws and cause irrevocable harm to the Chesapeake Bay watershed and wildlife. They have said Wagner's actions are especially egregious because he builds homes by trade.

Several environmental and community activists called Wagner's action a desperate attempt to intimidate a chief opponent to back down. Developers typically file such lawsuits, or threaten to issue them, when they consider their own cases legally vulnerable, they said.

"If someone's case is weak, they will do whatever is necessary to win," said Don Yeskey, president of the Generals Highway Council of Civic Associations, an organization that has challenged developers through county hearings and the courts since the mid-1980s.

Wagner did not attend the appeals hearing Wednesday in Annapolis, and he did not return a call yesterday seeking comment.

The attorney representing Wagner at the appeals board, Robert J. Fuoco, said his client's case is on strong legal ground.

Fuoco has noted that the home was built close to the center of the island to prevent runoff. Wagner also sought to reduce erosion by lining rocks along the shoreline.

"Frankly, I was impressed with my client's patience, considering previous comments Mr. Spadaro has made," Fuoco said.

Hewould not elaborate.

Ren Serey, executive director of the Critical Area Commission, which oversees development in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, said the defamation suit would not affect its legal action. County Attorney Linda Schuett responded similarly regarding the county's civil lawsuit against Wagner.

Wagner is thought to be the first person to build a home in the Chesapeake Bay watershed without county permits, according to state officials.

He obtained permits to make minor renovations to an existing house after buying the island in 2000, the county said. Instead, he demolished the house and built a lavish one in its place. It is the sole structure on the island, which is near Dobbins Island and Gibson Island.

Spadaro has accused the administration of County Executive Janet S. Owens of giving Wagner preferential treatment, pointing to $1,950 Owens has received in campaign contributions from Wagner Homes Inc. between 1999 and 2003. Owens and other county officials have denied accusations of favoritism.

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

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