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Builder's Suit Mires Activist in Court Fight : Burbank: The developer claims that Annette Baecker's actions caused costly delays in his Verdugo Mountains project. But some see the litigation as an attempt to limit free speech.

July 15, 1991|GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Annette C. Baecker was hailed as a hero over the weekend, as a David who is bravely facing up to a vengeful Goliath. But the accolades barely soothed Baecker's fears of being caught in a legal nightmare that might never end.

Baecker is a soft-spoken but occasionally fiery advocate for maintaining the beauty and natural environment of the hillsides of Burbank in the face of increasing residential development. She is now the target of what she calls a vicious legal assault by controversial builder Sherman Whitmore, who plans to build 129 luxury houses in the Verdugo Mountains above Burbank.

Whitmore has filed what Baecker and her attorney, Barry Fisher, call a "SLAPP" suit--a "strategic lawsuit against public participation" action that they say is intended to punish Baecker for her opposition to Whitmore's project. Whitmore is seeking unspecified damages while accusing her of illegally trying to block the project by interfering with a contract agreement.

The developer claims that his eight-year battle with Baecker and other residents who were opposed to the housing project caused delays that forced his other business ventures in Miami into bankruptcy.

Although a Los Angeles Superior Court judge dismissed the case earlier this year, Whitmore filed an appeal that is scheduled to be heard July 29. Fighting the case has already cost Baecker more than $18,000 in legal expenses and has had a damaging personal effect on her and her family, she said.

"It's been a real nightmare for us," Baecker said hours before a fund-raising reception to help with her legal costs.

Her husband's computer software job required him to transfer to Portland, Ore., and she moved there with her family a few months ago. But she returned to Burbank last week for the reception, which was held Friday at the home of former Burbank City Councilwoman Mary Lou Howard.

"We were not prepared for this experience," Baecker added, referring to the lawsuit. "I believed everything I did was proper. When you say something like this can have a chilling effect on you, that is exactly the case. I thought it would go away, but it keeps coming back."

And although a group of residents and city officials--current and former--are rallying around Baecker, the support is not unanimous. Even though the suit concerns a development that was approved by the Burbank City Council, the council voted a few months ago not to become involved in the legal battle, either as a participant or as a financial supporter.

Fisher said Whitmore's lawsuit is an example of how developers are fighting back in court against citizen opposition to their projects. In similar lawsuits elsewhere in Southern California, developers have sued community groups and individuals who have proposed building moratoriums, written letters to the editor expressing their anti-development views or used other means to block developments.

Developers filing the suits have said the legal actions are a more effective means of quieting criticism than attempting to compromise would be. They have complained that attempts to block projects take away their property rights, damage their reputations and rob them of a reasonable profit.

But the targets of the suits say the developers are trying to take away their First Amendment rights to criticize projects. They say the suits are aimed at quashing their participation in government.

"Like the acronym that gives this kind of suit its name, Annette has been slapped around," Fisher said. "She has suffered greatly. Even after moving to Oregon, she is being pursued."

Whitmore could not be reached for comment.

However, Whitmore's attorney, Brian Bird, argued that the suit was not a SLAPP action.

"There were a number of times in the past that Mr. Whitmore wanted to take action against Annette Baecker, and I advised him not to," Bird said. "This doesn't have anything to do with the First Amendment."

Since 1984, Whitmore has been planning to build his housing tract on 117 acres he owns in Cabrini Canyon. A neighborhood group called the Burbank Mountain Reserve Protection Assn., headed by Baecker, fought the proposal for several years. They said their main concern was the fate of 1.4 acres of federally protected wetlands that would be destroyed when 2.2 million cubic yards of dirt were bulldozed during grading.

Bird said Whitmore reached an agreement with the state Department of Fish and Game around October of last year to create or enhance 3 1/2 acres of habitat elsewhere as mitigation for the grading in the canyon. Under a contract with the department, Whitmore and his development company, Burbank Hill Properties, agreed to pay $150,000 to the Mountain Restoration Trust, a private corporation that purchases private land and preserves it as fish and wildlife habitat.

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