LONG BEACH — A $1-million lawsuit allegedly designed to intimidate residents protesting a condominium project has been dropped in what local activists are calling a victory for free speech and a neighborhood's right to speak up.
The so-called "unconditional surrender" by Huntington Beach developer Gary Peters is not only a clear win for the two residents who were its target, but for the town itself, which rose up to fight what attorney Marc Coleman said was Long Beach's first SLAPP--Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation.
"I said from the beginning that Long Beach was the wrong place to try a move like this," Coleman said. "The people here hold sacred the right to speak up."
The lawsuit filed in Long Beach Superior Court in July accused Michael Horrigan, a 54-year-old grandfather of four, and Sharon Douglass, a disabled ex-postal clerk, of engaging in a "conspiracy" to interfere with business when they rallied their neighbors to oppose a 63-unit condominium that Peters and another developer plan to build in the Zaferia neighborhood west of the Traffic Circle.
The suit brought Horrigan and Douglass face to face with potential financial ruin. And it jolted the quaint community that straddles Redondo Avenue south of Pacific Coast Highway. Some residents stopped speaking at public meetings out of fear.
But Horrigan and Douglass threw down the gauntlet. They hired Coleman and threatened to countersue for malicious prosecution if the developer pressed his case.
As word of the lawsuit spread through town, hackles raised. Several residents publicly decried the developer's heavy-handedness and challenged him to sue them for saying so. Neighborhood groups pledged money to help Horrigan and Douglass wage what promised to be an expensive court battle, Coleman said.
Last week, Peters dropped the suit, saying in a press release: "I believe in the public's right to speak out and just as strongly believe in debating an issue based on the facts."
Horrigan and Douglass said they are relieved to be free of the financial burden of the lawsuit. But they are climbing out of the ring with their dukes up.
"I was ready to sue that sucker for his property and put a park there and name it after him," Douglass said.
The developers, G. M. Peters Development Co. and H & P Development, meanwhile are altering the blueprints for their multistory condominium project, and plan to submit revisions to the city in a few weeks.
Douglass said the neighborhood residents remain opposed to anything larger than single-family homes and, fresh with victory, are bolder than ever before.