Some of our best friends are developers who sue citizens that speak out

New Republican Loudoun supervisor Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin) struck a heroic figure in his campaign last fall with his courageous opposition to traffic, stinkbugs, and truth or decency (take your pick).

Since the election he has been Exhibit A of the new GOP strategy of masking its developer give-aways in a wrapping of bland and vague geniality, replacing the gratuitous (and politically bad) in-your-face confrontation of the last GOP-developer-backed board in 2003–2007.

Since the election Higgins has also notably and faithfully toed the party line, voting to kill the illegal-sign cleanup program (I guess when he waxed eloquent during the campaign about the Catoctin District’s “pristine wilderness” he was thinking of something besides how it looks) and to initiate the insidious process of unraveling the county’s rural comprehensive zoning plan (which during the election he pledged to support unchanged).

Higgins was also a prime recipient of the remarkable flood of developer cash that flowed into Loudoun GOP coffers during this election cycle.Thanks to the folks at the wonderful Virginia Public Access Project, detailed data is freely available to all on campaign contributions. Higgins’s largest source of cash bar none out of the $126,276 he raked in was the $10,200 donated to his campaign by an interesting, newly formed PAC called “Citizens for Virginia’s Future.”

Perhaps needless to say, by the strangest of coincidences all of the 22 of the “citizens” who make up this group seem to be from the real estate and development industry.

The group also gave $9,000 to GOP Loudoun supervisor Janet Clarke (R-Blue Ridge), $8,500 to Suzanne Volpe (R-Algonkian), $4,250 to Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles), and $8,750 to Eugene Delgaudio (R-Mars). (Poor Ralph Buona, R-Ashburn, clearly must have done something wrong, because he only got a measly $750 from the group.)

A top donor to this PAC is one David J. Sowers of Midlothian, Virginia, who has a particularly colorful record in the annals of democratic participation, free speech, and land development in our commonwealth. In 2006 he sued the Powhatan County Board of Supervisors when his application for rezoning of 250 acres of land he owned was turned down.

The board subsequently reconsidered the matter, and approved Sowers’s application. But that was not enough for Sowers. He then filed a lawsuit in Federal court, claiming that his civil rights had been violated by the initial rezoning denial and seeking $250,000 in compensation for legal expenses.

He also asked the state court to find in “criminal contempt” four citizens who had spoken against his rezoning request.

Apparently Sowers’s theory was that because his lawsuit was still pending at the time of the rehearing, the citizens were in contempt of court by exercising their right to be heard on the matter before the board. (Sowers’s first action after filing his original suit had been to subpoena the computer records of the four citizens.)

A plainly incredulous (pdf file) Judge Thomas V. Warren of the 11th Judicial Circuit issued a withering rejection of Sowers’s arguments in an order dated July 31, 2006—though not before the four citizens had faced the distinctly chilling ordeal of incurring huge legal expenses to defend themselves against this phony charge, undergoing lengthy grilling by Sowers’s attorney in depositions, and testifying in two days of court proceedings.

As Judge Warren noted in his order:

What is supported by the evidence and the record is that citizens opposing a zoning request find themselves in court and required to defend their actions at great expense of time, money, and emotional resources. . . . The citizens have done only what citizens have every right to do.

The plaintiff’s request for a show cause on civil and/or criminal contempt was not grounded in law or fact and in my opinion was brought for the purpose of punishing those who opposed him and cost [them], in his counsel’s words, “a lot of money.”

The judge took the very unusual step of ordering Sowers to pay the four citizens’ attorney’s fees, a sanction generally imposed only in cases where one party had committed an egregious abuse of process. (Sowers appealed to the Supreme Court of Virgina, which on January 11, 2008, upheld Judge Warren’s order for sanctions against Sowers. Sowers’s appeal of his Federal suit to the U.S. Fourth Circuit, and then to the U.S. Supreme Court, was rejected as well.)

It would be interesting to know what plans Sowers and the other large donors to “Citizens” for Virginia’s Future have for Loudoun. Nearly all of the fifty G’s distributed by this PAC went to Loudoun GOP candidates (a small amount went to Republican candidates in Powhatan and Fairfax; zero went to Democrats). One of the other top donors to the group is Jon M. Peterson, a leading developer in Fairfax.

These guys don’t expect nothing for something.

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