Bristol, TN. City Sues Its Own Citizens for Speaking Out Against Sprawl
It looks like the powers that be in Bristoll, Tennessee want to teach citizens a civics lesson: speak up for your rights, and we'll try to destroy you financially. According to a report in the Bristol News, city officials have filed a $2.87 million lawsuit against 9 residents who dared to speak against a rezoning that would impact the value of their largest investment -- their homes. The residents are fighting against a town-approved rezoning that would pave the way for a Wal-Mart supercenter. Mayor Trish Bane was quoted as saying: "We will not sit idly by and allow this small group of only nine people to declare our city closed for business and cost our citizens the loss of
significant revenue." Citizens For Responsible Growth -- a group of residents whose properties abut the Wal-Mart site, and who stand to be injured financially -- filed a lawsuit to stop the development and lost on a technicality. Citizens have now appealed the August court ruling that cleared the way for the development to proceed. City Attorney Jack Hyder said the city's lawsuit asks the state Court of Appeals to find the appeal frivolous and to order a judgment equal to the sales and property taxes the development would generate this year. "The group's tactics have led to delays that have cost our taxpayers more than a half-million dollars in lost sales and property tax revenues already," the mayor said. She did not indicate how much the homeowners stand to lose if the Wal-Mart is built. The city's figures include more than $2 million in state sales tax revenues, more than $650,000 in city and county sales tax revenues and $180,000 in city and county property taxes. The amounts are based on a Wal-Mart economic impact study. Earlier this year, a Chancery Court judge ruled the
citizen's petition was invalid because it was not filed in accordance with state law. "This action is probably to intimidate members of the group and chill their rights of free speech," explained Jim Culp, the citizens group's attorney.The citizens appeal deals only with whether the City Charter or state law took precedence."I don't think the appeal is frivolous and, secondly, I have a hard time seeing how a group of citizens who are pursuing a decision regarding something that is in the text of the City Charter -- I don't see where they violated anyone's rights by having a court try to straighten this out," Culp told the newspaper. But the City Manager says the citizen's action is "beyond reason," he said, "particularly when we know the appeal has no chance of succeeding. It is nothing more than a stall tactic meant to drive away development." Last March, the city council voted to rezone the 67 acre parcel, which abuts more than 20 homes.
Residents at the time expressed their concerns about traffic, noise, the environment and their quality of life. When they filed a petition to challenge the rezoning, the Sullivan County Election Commission rejected the
petition, saying it wasn't registered before being circulated to obtain enough signatures.The citizens group contends the petition -- which contains about
1,100 signatures -- was valid under the terms of the City Charter.The mayor asserts the store would generate 250
new jobs, and admits that the project will end another 168 jobs at the existing Wal-Mart store. No independent economic impact study has verified the numbers the Mayor is quoting. Regardless of how many jobs the Mayor thinks this store will produce, the rights of homeowners to defend their investment is being ignored and denigrated.
What you can do: The "Bristol 9" are only trying to follow through their legal claim that this rezoning could be challenged. These taxpayers are defending their property from damage, and are being attacked by their own city government for trying to exercise their first amendment rights to petition government through the courts. Usually these kinds of SLAPP suits (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) are filed by developers, but in this case, the Mayor is carrying water for the developer. This is a pathetic low point in the role of city government against its own people. If residents cannot defend their homes free from fear of intimidation and financial ruin at the hands of their elected officials, where can they expect to find justice? For earlier stories, search this database by "Bristol".