SC law would prevent home builders from suing private citizens for speaking out against new construction

Citizens Participation in Government Act would have created anti-SLAPP statute in SC.


By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities


The Post and Courier recently published some articles about a lawsuit initiated by home builder Ashton Woods against the town of Mount Pleasant, after several private citizens spoke publicly against a townhouse development.

According to the report, David Simp and three other residents of Simmons Pointe condominium objected to five new townhouses at Sullivan’s Pointe. The townhomes were being constructed directly adjacent to the condominium community.

Although the town had approved construction plans, citizens of Simmons Pointe objected to the fact that the new homes exceeded the Town’s height limitations. The townhomes were designed with elevated garage foundations, and towered over nearby condominiums.

Town Council ordered a Stop Work Order, and a lawsuit was then filed by developer Ashton Woods against the Town of Mount Pleasant. Several condo owners and private citizens’ communications were subpoenaed, including social media posts and personal emails between town officials and the condo association.

Townhouses new construction ( free image)

Homeowners regarded these provocative actions as a violation of their privacy and free speech rights. Town Council members agreed that citizens should have the right to participate in public debate on issues, without fear of being dragged into a costly and intimidating lawsuit.

The lawsuit was settled last year, with Ashton Woods agreeing to demolish the unfinished townhomes. The builder was issued a new permit to rebuild homes to a height than cannot exceed 40 feet.

The controversial lawsuit prompted Mt. Pleasant Town Council to encourage state lawmakers to enact a law intended to prevent Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation’ or “SLAPP” lawsuits — Citizens Participation in Government Act.

H. 4897 calls for creation of an Attorney General hotline, where citizens can file SLAPP complaints. The bill would also prevent lawsuit abuse by creating an expedited dismissal process, and allowing the court to award attorney fees to the prevailing party.

In other words, to use this case as an example, if a developer files a vindictive SLAPP suit against a citizen, with the intent to silence that individual from speaking up, the court would promptly dismiss the lawsuit, and order the developer to pay the citizens attorney fees.

Unfortunately, this Legislative session, the bill died in committee. But supporters of the bill intend to reintroduce the anti-SLAPP legislation next year.

About half of all states in the U.S. have already enacted anti-SLAPP laws, which prevent wealthy corporations, politicians, and influential individuals from filing frivolous lawsuits against private citizens that dare to speak out against controversial public policy.

In this case, homeowners publicly opposed new development in close proximity to their homes, and they had every right to do so.

Anti-SLAPP legislation is critically important, so that citizens can speak up against high density residential development, and as homeowners’ organizations protest local development of busy commercial centers or industrial plants close to their neighborhoods.

With public backlash growing against homeowners’ associations (HOAs), and mounting housing consumer complaints against condominium and cooperative associations, private citizens must also have the right to publicly object to new construction of planned, common interest communities, without fear of being sued by a developer.

Like it or not, real estate developers and local governments will face growing demands for new housing without common ownership of property, onerous restrictive covenants (CC&Rs), and mandatory membership property owners’ associations.

Free speech should include criticism of development, Mount Pleasant officials urge Statehouse

When a developer sued Mount Pleasant in 2016 over a zoning decision, a half-dozen town residents who had spoken critically about the development received subpoenas and became unwilling participants in the case.

“That just happens to be one example where lawsuits can be used to stifle public participation,” said David Shimp, who was among those receiving the notices.

“Merely because, with several neighbors, we had the audacity to discuss this issue in public with elected lawmakers, we got slapped with subpoenas,” he said.

Shimp lives in the Simmons Pointe condominium complex where he and other residents were upset about a development next door along Ben Sawyer Boulevard called Sullivan’s Pointe.

The subpoenas demanded residents’ communications, including Facebook and Twitter posts, to or from other residents of Simmons Pointe, the homeowners association, the town, elected officials, appointed members of the Board of Zoning Appeals and others.

The lawsuit by developer Ashton Woods also sought to subpoena two leaders of the Save Shem Creek group, an influential voice on growth-related issues in the town.

The lawsuit ended up getting settled. But this year, largely due to that incident, Mount Pleasant Town Council urged state lawmakers to pass a bill called the Citizens Participation in Government Act of 2018. The bill is what’s known as anti-SLAPP legislation, aimed at preventing “strategic lawsuits against public participation.”

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Read SC H. 4897Citizens Participation in Government Act of 2018

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