Pricey Lawsuits Hound Local Governments’ Growth Decisions

BEAR CREEK TOWNSHIP— An attorney with a controversial history of suing public officials as private citizens has helped force this Emmet County township to spend $388,000 to defend itself against multiple lawsuits he’s filed on behalf of a local developer with downstate roots.

The lawsuits, as well as possibly illegal manipulations of local elections by a big-box retail chain that worked with the same attorney, raise new questions about the ability of Michigan’s nearly 2,000 local governments to follow the wishes of their citizens when managing their community’s growth.

The lawsuits are also renewing calls for new state laws to protect Michigan’s local governments from such cases, commonly known as “SLAPP suits”—“strategic lawsuits against public participation.”

The current Bear Creek lawsuit, litigated by Timothy Stoepker of the Detroit law firm Dickinson Wright PLLC and another attorney, requests more than $6 million in damages on behalf of Petoskey Investment Group, an affiliate of Strathmore Development Company of East Lansing. It marks the fourth time the township or its sewer authority have been sued by the developer since it overcame legal obstacles, including a citizen referendum, and built a big-box store east of Petoskey.

It also marks another occasion when Mr. Stoepker has been part of a land use controversy in northern Michigan.

A few years ago, Mr. Stoepker, acting on behalf of big-box retailer Meijer Inc., helped mount lawsuits against a number of trustees of Acme Township, 60 miles south of here, in Grand Traverse County. Those suits—some thrown out of court and some still on appeal—attacked the trustees as private citizens, not as public officials, for resisting a proposed development plan involving Meijer.

Then, this past winter, Mr. Stoepker’s name surfaced in Grand Traverse County again, this time in media reports linking him to a recall campaign in Acme that is attracting intense legal scrutiny. That recall had unsuccessfully targeted the same Acme trustees as Mr. Stoepker’s failed lawsuits for Meijer, which has acknowledged that it likely violated campaign finance laws during that election.

Mr. Stoepker’s expensive lawsuits in Acme and Bear Creek Township, the court decision overturning the Bear Creek referendum, and threats made by one of investment group’s lawyers against Bear Creek during a recent deposition underline the difficulty Michigan’s financially stretched local governments and their elected officials can face when acting on behalf of their citizens’ wishes.

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