(Editor’s Note: Written by Grant Parsons, this letter was also sent to the Peninsula Township Board and read into the minutes of their July 12 meeting. -jb)
To the Peninsula Township Board:
The Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula (WOMP) sent what appears to be a threat to the Peninsula Township Board. The wineries say they will “determine whether to file against the township officials personally…” I am writing to express my continued support for you board members and to urge you to stand firm in the face of the wineries’ veiled threat.
I am also writing to express my personal outrage. The idea that the wineries may sue individual board members should outrage every township resident. The stress of being threatened with personal ruination, for simply performing your jobs, is an outrage to basic notions of democracy.
We township residents elected you to defend our agriculture zoning ordinance. The ordinance has been in effect for decades. These wineries have succeeded and thrived, courtesy of the Township’s agricultural land use plan. Past township boards have defended lawsuits challenging the ag ordinance. We had a successful referendum that rejected the type of commercialization of the agricultural zone proposed by wineries.
Our ag ordinance has created a unique, beautiful and thriving mixed community of rural and ag development. You, the board members, are doing nothing more than following the wishes of the majority of township voters. You are doing exactly what democracy requires you to do.
Opposing your principled defense of the Township’s land use plan, some self-interested, greedy commercial wineries are using a veiled threat to try to force you to surrender the rights of township residents by settling their unfair lawsuit. They want to force you to allow farms to turn into wedding event sites. The wineries may make statements about wanting to do nice things for our community, but their veiled threat belies WOMP’s true nature – greed and bullying.
The last time a commercial corporation tried to bully a local township official for defending local zoning, the bullying didn’t turn out well for the corporation. You may recall the lawsuit involving an Acme Township official who was threatened by a corporation. That man, Bill Boltres, exposed the Meijer Corporation in a counter suit. As reported in the Traverse City Record-Eagle, Boltres sued the corporation back, and won a settlement of approximately $2 million. Bill’s fellow township officials followed suit, made a similar claim against Meijer, and won large settlements.
The Old Mission wineries want to be seen as “nice guys,” but threats of personal lawsuits are not nice. A lawsuit against township officials in their personal capacity is called a “SLAPP suit” (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation). It is a tactic used by unprincipled corporations to scare civic-minded officials into abandoning their zoning codes out of fear of personal financial ruin.
SLAPP suits damage democracy by undermining small communities’ rights and by deterring community members from serving in governmental office. SLAPP suits are antithetical to American democracy and American justice. SLAPP suits are simply big money trying to crush small town values.
You should ask your township attorney for advice. I believe he or she will explain the multiple safeguards that Michigan and United States laws provide to beat back SLAPP suits. I believe he or she will explain how you can defend yourself if the wineries follow through on their message. He or she may also advise you of your right to counter-sue for abuse of process, malicious prosecution, or infliction of emotional distress.
I want to express my sincere appreciation for your principled defense of Peninsula Township. Decades of innovative land use planning are on your side. The people of the township are on your side. The township’s history of agricultural zoning is on your side. The pending Protect the Peninsula (PTP) appeal is on your side. The future of Peninsula Township is on your side.
Please, keep up the good work. Do not fear bullies who make veiled threats.