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Court dismisses state's challenge to State Center lawsuit

Laws and LegislationJustice System

A Baltimore Circuit Court judge dismissed a legal challenge Friday filed against opponents of the $1.5 billion State Center project, allowing the court fight to continue against the midtown Baltimore redevelopment.

Judge Althea M. Handy issued a decision late Friday, two days after opponents, a group of downtown property and business owners, argued they have a First Amendment right to protest the plans. The group had filed a lawsuit against the project a year ago, accusing the state of using a noncompetitive process to choose developers.

The judge's decision "again focuses the case back where it belongs, on whether the state agencies complied with the competitive bidding requirements in awarding a $1.5 billion construction project," said Alan M. Rifkin, an attorney for the redevelopment's opponents.

In September, the Maryland attorney general's office filed a counterclaim on behalf of the state Department of Transportation and Department of General Services, which are overseeing the project in conjunction with a private developer. The state sought $100 million from plaintiffs for increased costs of construction, financing and building maintenance as a result of delays. The transit-oriented development, to be built along Preston Street over 15 years, was first proposed a decade ago.

A spokesman for the attorney general's office said he could not comment on what the decision means for the project or what the state's next step might be.

"We're still reviewing the decision," David Paulson, the spokesman, said.

During Wednesday's hearing, Deputy Attorney General Campbell Killefer argued that that the state found it necessary to file a counterclaim to respond to "sham" litigation and "disinformation" designed to stop the project. The state argued that such lawsuits posed a "clear and present danger" to the public development process.

In her order granting the opponents' motion to dismiss the counterclaim, Handy said an exception to protected free speech — filing a "sham" lawsuit — does not apply to the opponents' original lawsuit.

Rifkin said the court order is consistent with the First Amendment right to petition government without fear or threat of retribution.

"We're delighted," said Bonnie Scible, a plaintiff in the opponents' lawsuit who owns The Peanut Shoppe, a 75-year-old shop now on North Charles Street. "The judge made the right decision. It was completely outrageous that the state would sue any of us just for trying to pursue our First Amendment rights."

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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