A millionaire real estate developer's $50.2 million libel suit against the Anne Arundel County activists who have stymied his attempts to develop 477 acres on the Shady Side peninsula goes to trial today in District of Columbia Superior Court.
Dominic F. Antonelli, who made a fortune in the parking garage business in Washington, has accused South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development Inc. (SACReD) of defaming him by writing to government officials and creditors and complaining that he acquired the land through questionable means. Antonelli filed the suit in Washington because SACReD sent some of the letters to federal officials there.
James R. Foster, acting president of SACReD, says the group merely "brought public documents together and went to the authorities about it with questions."
The trial is another skirmish in Antonelli's decade-long effort to build 152 single-family homes in the Baldwin's Choice subdivision.
The trial begins while officials of the South County Land Trust negotiate with the county, the state and Pointe Properties Inc., Antonelli's development company, to purchase Baldwin's Choice. At the same time, Pointe Properties has appealed county zoning officials' refusal to waive school-capacity limits for the community.
Under county law, the development cannot go forward without the waiver because schools in the area are at or above capacity.
Members of SACReD say Antonelli is using the suit, which names former Presidents Michael J. Bevenour and Brett R. Joseph and member Weems W. Duvall Jr. as co-defendants, to intimidate them.
"We were looking for answers," Foster said. "We wanted the authorities to look into it. To call that libelous is outrageous. That's a First Amendment issue. You can't stifle that."
Lawyers for SACReD tried unsuccessfully to get a D.C. judge to declare the suit a SLAPP -- an acronym for "strategic lawsuit against public participation," or simply, a tactic to intimidate people so they don't speak up about issues of concern -- and dismiss it.
Superior Court Judge Lee F. Satterfield ruled in March last year that the District of Columbia does not recognize SLAPP suits.
Thousands of SLAPP suits have been filed across the country since 1970 in efforts to stop people from exercising their right to petition the government, said George W. Pring, an attorney and professor at the University of Denver College of Law. Real estate developers are among the biggest generators of such suits, he said.
The suit has been "very stressful," Foster said, adding that SACReD members have spent thousands of dollars each in legal fees. "The lawsuit has had a dramatic effect on everybody, but we feel very strongly about this issue."
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 more students in crowded schools, damage to wetlands and increased traffic on Shady Side Road, the peninsula's one link to the rest of the county.
Antonelli says SACReD went too far in October 1996, when members wrote letters to officials, business executives, attorneys and the Annapolis Capital newspaper claiming that the developer was involved in secret liens and sweetheart land deals.
The letters also called into question 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.
Antonelli, whose bankruptcy in 1991 was the largest in Maryland history, is a Pointe officer, director and shareholder.
Shortly after the mailing, Antonelli's lawyer demanded an apology, but SACReD refused. The suit contends that SACReD's letter "falsely and maliciously" accused the developers of bankruptcy fraud and bank fraud.
"We just wanted an apology and for them to circulate an apology," said Jeffrey Harris, Antonelli's Washington lawyer. "That did not happen. They wrote a letter back saying they stand by the veracity of what they said."
Pub Date: 5/26/98