Would-be Merritt Property Developers Drop SLAPP Suit Against GOSA

GROTON–Developers have unconditionally withdrawn their SLAPP suit against Groton Open Space Association.

The developers–operating as Mystic Estates Partners of New London and Ravenswood Construction LLC of Cheshire–had received two demands from GOSA’s attorney, Paulann H. Sheets, to drop the action or face a suit themselves. The suit against GOSA was formally terminated July 25, 2003. Earlier, the developers had halted proceedings against nine individuals named in the original suit.

Mystic Estates Partners and Ravenswood Construction had alleged in the June 5, 2003, suit that GOSA and the nine individuals abused the legal process and interfered with contractual relationships by appealing, in early 2002, the Groton Planning Commission’s approval of a subdivision on the Merritt property. Following the appeal, GOSA learned that the 75-acre property was again on the market. It negotiated with the owner, and signed a contract April 14, 2003, to buy the tract between Fort Hill and Fishtown Road for $1 million.

GOSA intends to name the property The Merritt Family Forest in honor of the selling family.

Commenting on the withdrawal, Priscilla Pratt, GOSA president, said: “This is a great day for citizens everywhere in Connecticut because the plaintiffs correctly saw that they can’t sue us just for exercising our democratic legal rights.” Ms. Sheets noted that Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and the Connecticut Fund for the Environment had been just a day away from announcing their intention to support GOSA in court when news of the withdrawal reached her.

The term “SLAPP” in connection with developers’ suits against citizens who oppose plans in public proceedings is an acronyn for “Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation.”

Still unresolved is a suit filed April 15, 2003, by Ravenswood Construction against F.L. Merritt Inc. seeking to prevent Merritt from selling to GOSA. Ravenswood contends that it in effect had a prior contract to buy the property, though it does not claim to be in possession of a signed contract.

Attorney General Blumenthal’s office released a statement three days after the withdrawal that said: “We need more, not less, participation by ordinary citizens in decisions affecting their lives and communities. Lawsuits like the one brought against GOSA and nine citizens directly attack citizen involvement…and must be steadfastly fought.” The state attorney general added that GOSA received a $650,000 grant from the state Department of Environmental Protection on April 8, 2003, toward purchase of the Merritt property. “This is a striking endorsement of GOSA’s view that it should be preserved,” the state attorney general said.

Curt Johnson, senior staff attorney for the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, said: “Any party that presents a case as GOSA did, with expert testimony about the environmental impacts of development, has the right to appeal an adverse decision by a land use board. As important as the First Amendment, the Connecticut Environmental Protection Act gives the citizens the power to protect the state’s air, land and water. This suit by the developers was an attack on that right, and CFE would have gone to court with GOSA and the attorney general to defend it.”

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