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The black art of suing into submission

October 01, 2006|by LYN WIDMYER

If you have some opinions about growth and development in Jefferson County, W.Va., beware.

You may be slapped hard by development interests.

I am not referring to an open-handed smack across the cheek. I am referring to the legal version of a bone-shattering punch to the jaw: Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or "SLAPP" suits. These lawsuits are filed in retaliation against citizens for communicating their opinion to public agencies. In Jefferson County, this means speaking in opposition to proposed development.

Three local residents found out about SLAPP suits the hard way. Three years ago they expressed concern about the impact of a proposed subdivision on school overcrowding, nearby wells and roads.

Citing their opposition as "malicious interference," local developers Gene Capriotti and Herb Jonkers sued the citizens to the tune of $1.6 million for causing a delay in construction and then added an additional $500,000 for punitive damages. The case is still in the courts.

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While citizens like you and I can be SLAPPED silly, members of the Jefferson County Planning Commission are being attacked in other ways.

The Jefferson County Citizens for Economic Preservation recently appeared before the Jefferson County Commission to request the removal of Planning Commission Chairman Paul Burke.

According to the group's attorney, Burke has demonstrated "a history of activism against residential growth." Commissioners Jane Tabb and Rusty Morgan wanted to pursue the matter, but luckily Commissioners Jim Surkamp and Greg Corliss opposed the idea so the motion failed (Commissioner Dale Manual was absent).

Todd Baldau, another member of the Jefferson County Planning Commission, must pay for his own defense against a petition for removal filed by developers Gene Capriotti, Louis B. Athey and Herb Jonkers.

As Baldau noted in a column for The Herald-Mail (Aug. 27), he has voted to approve 44 subdivision plats and voted to deny only five.

In the eyes of the development interests, denying those five make him guilty of official misconduct, malfeasance in office, incompetence and neglect of duty.

When the County Commission regretfully informed him they could not pay his legal fees, Baldau thought of resigning. Thankfully, he has decided to hire a lawyer and plans to challenge the petition for removal.

All of these legal actions might be directed against individuals, but the message is intended for all residents of the county.

The message is simple. Speak out against development and you may be SLAPP-ed silly.

Agree to serve on the planning commission or the board of zoning appeals and you could face costly lawsuits. How many citizens will file for positions on boards and commissions given the threat of legal action?

People should be able to speak on issues of public concern without fearing costly litigation.

Our West Virginia state legislators need to introduce and support anti-SLAPP legislation. Twenty-four states have enacted anti-SLAPP statutes, including Maryland.

At the local level, County Commission members need to find a way to help pay for legal fees incurred by public servants acting in good faith.

Better yet, maybe the County Commission should place a moratorium on all subdivision activity until these suits are settled.

Suing people into silence should not be tolerated. Our elected officials need to prove they agree.

Lyn Widmyer is a Charles Town, W.Va., resident who writes for The Herald-Mail. Her e-mail address is rwidmyer@msn.com

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