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Producer retreats on libel suit against new-plant opponents

Sources: North Buncombe Association of Concerned Citizens (NBACC), Asheville, N.C.; CP staff

A two-year-old North Carolina Superior Court Division case closed with the plaintiff, Georgia-based Mark Turner, apologizing to the defendants, Aaron Pohl-Zaretsky, and fellow NBACC members, for a libel suit in connection with activities opposing the permitting of a ready mixed plant operating as Blue Ridge Concrete.

In May 2010, the plaintiffs challenged defendants’ use of images on a website launched to stop construction of a plant on a north Buncombe County tract near schools and accessible via steep, narrow roads. Website visitors were presented a cartoon portraying a Blue Ridge-labeled mixer truck ramming a school bus, and the file of a letter to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson outlining objections to a permit based on citations to Turner-owned plants in neighboring states.

In response to claims of libelous content, NBACC voluntarily discontinued the use of the image and letter files shortly after being served notice of a lawsuit by the county sheriff.  That service of process was delivered on the afternoon of a Western North Carolina Air Quality Agency hearing on a permit for Blue Ridge Concrete. Lead defendant Pohl-Zaretsky characterized the legal maneuver as a SLAPP, or Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. Developers use such suits, he notes, to squelch public opposition to their projects by forcing citizens to spend time and money to defend their First Amendment rights.

An NBACC complaint on the absence of a permit as plant construction commenced resulted in the air quality agency’s $1,000-plus fine to Blue Ridge Concrete, the Association notes, adding that the producer operated on the site from September 2010 through November 2011.

A “Joint Statement in Settlement of Litigation” that accompanied the court’s libel suit dismissal order notes, “[Plaintiffs] acknowledge that NBACC and its members have a right to advocate their position on matters of public interest, and that the expression of their views in this case was protected by law and did not violate any of Blue Ridge Concrete’s or Mark Turner’s rights. [Plaintiffs] recognize that [defendants] have been put to considerable expense in having to defend this lawsuit, which BRC and Turner deeply regret. BRC and Turner apologize to NBACC for the expense, inconvenience, and potential chilling of their right of advocacy this lawsuit has caused.”