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ACLU enters dispute over speech



An article in Saturday's editions of The Sun said the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland has agreed to represent any resident of the Avalon Courtyard Homes community who is sued for speaking out against the developer's building plans near the neighborhood. The ACLU also has agreed to represent any resident of other sections of the Avalon development who might be sued for opposing the building plans.

Responding to what it described as an unusual threat to First Amendment freedoms, the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union yesterday entered a dispute between a group of Pikesville residents and a developer who has issued veiled threats to sue them for speaking out against its building plans.

The ACLU will represent any resident of the Avalon Courtyard Homes community who is sued for speaking against developer Questar Properties' proposal for condominiums, office buildings and stores near their neighborhood, Dwight Sullivan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland, said yesterday.

"This is the most fundamental, basic, First Amendment right, to free expression and to petition the government for redress of grievances," Sullivan said.

He said the threat of lawsuits - and concerns about the cost of defending them - is often enough to "chill" people into silence, but added, "Hopefully, with the ACLU being willing to commit to represent these homeowners, these homeowners will not be chilled."

The dispute arose this year after some residents received letters suggesting that they might be sued if they opposed the developer's request for zoning changes for a future phase of the Avalon development, which straddles Reisterstown Road just north of the Beltway. The letters referred to an unusual clause in the contracts the homeowners signed when buying their condominiums. The language seemed to require homeowners to support virtually any building plans for their community.

The clause - described by an official in the residents' community association as a "gag order" - had gone unnoticed by the residents, although it appears in a paragraph labeled "Notice to Purchaser." Similar language is in a 2-inch-thick document establishing an umbrella organization for community associations in the eastern half of the Avalon project.

Attempts to reach Questar officials for comment yesterday were unsuccessful. But Steven M. Gorn, president of the Pikesville company, has said that the language was designed to build a "buffer" against opposition to plans within the development and that the homeowners should have to live up to agreements they signed. He also denied that the letters were designed to intimidate residents.

But Avalon residents say they have been intimidated into remaining largely silent as plans for the area have been debated in connection with Baltimore County's comprehensive rezoning process.

"People wanted to speak out, but they were afraid," Morris Binder, president of the Avalon Courtyard Homes Condominium Association, said yesterday. "Even though they felt sure the litigation would be [resolved] in their favor, it would cost thousands of dollars in legal expenses."

The proposed zoning changes are to be voted on by the Baltimore County Council on Oct. 10. The last of the public hearings on proposals in the Pikesville area has been conducted, but Binder said residents now might feel free to write letters to Kevin B. Kamenetz, the county councilman who represents the area.

The residents, Binder said, "have got a public defender, so to speak. ... I think it's fabulous."

Sullivan said it's common for courts to rule on whether covenants are enforceable, but added, "This is the first time I've seen it where a private corporation is trying to say to someone, 'We may sue you for trying to talk to your elected representatives.' "

He said the organization decided against filing a suit against the developer because there is little time before the council's vote next month.

When the dispute flared in May, Kamenetz said he would meet with residents in confidence if they wanted to convey their thoughts on the rezoning request. Community association officials said two residents took advantage of that offer at a meeting between association officers and the councilman.

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