You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

A Bustleton group that opposes a massive UPS warehouse is being sued by the site’s developer

Philadelphia Inquirer 2/1/2023 Jake Blumgart, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Jack O'Hara, president of the Greater Bustleton Civic League, near site where UPS is planning a major warehouse development on Red Lion Road near Country Club Blvd. © ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS Jack O'Hara, president of the Greater Bustleton Civic League, near site where UPS is planning a major warehouse development on Red Lion Road near Country Club Blvd.

For almost five years the Greater Bustleton Civic League fought the construction of a million-square-foot warehouse with every tool at their disposal, including lawsuits.

Now the company behind the project, St. Louis-based Commercial Development Co., is filing a lawsuit of its own.

In January, the Greater Bustleton Civic League (GBCL) and its officers received a summons from Relteva, an LLC-associated with Commercial Development Co. So did Sandmeyer Steel, a business near the proposed warehouse site that allied with the civic group to oppose the project.

There is community and local business opposition to a giant UPS warehouse in this residential area. A car goes by a sign against it on Red Lion Road on June 2, 2022. © CHARLES FOX/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS There is community and local business opposition to a giant UPS warehouse in this residential area. A car goes by a sign against it on Red Lion Road on June 2, 2022.

“GBCL and Sandmeyer oppose this development and have sought to stand in Relteva’s way at all costs by continually perverting the legal process for the illegitimate goal of preventing the lawful development of the site,” reads the company’s legal complaint.

The firm argues that its foes have inflicted “substantial damages” in the form of delays, abuse of process, and “tortious interference.” Relteva is seeking a minimum of $50,000, plus damages.

At a recent meeting of the civic association, GBCL president Jack O’Hara told his membership about the case and said that he’d been told it could fall into the category of what is called a “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation” (SLAPP).

“This is a term a lot of people mentioned to me, a SLAPP suit, I don’t know if it is or not,” O’Hara said. “It’s a term for the kind of lawsuits that are used to intimidate or silence the opposition in court.”

Neither party would grant The Inquirer an interview about the details of the case.

Clashes between neighborhood groups and real estate developers are a regular occurrence. But this case is unusual in its duration and ferocity.

The civic association sees itself as standing up to an unsuitable land use in the neighborhood, and being subject to potential legal ruin for it.

The Commercial Development Co. (CDC) argues it is acting within the zoning of the site and has won at every step of the legal process but is still stymied. But unlike a traditional SLAPP suit — in which a developer sues early in the process to stymie opposition — in this case, the company is taking this more aggressive approach years into the process.

And now CDC is escalating.

The stadium-sized warehouse at the center of it all

The project is proposed for a 138-acre tract on Red Lion Road in the Far Northeast near Philadelphia’s border with Lower Moreland. Once the site of a Budd Co. manufacturing plant, it more recently served as a golf course. But the site remained zoned for industrial use.

CDC purchased the land for $18 million in 2018 with the intention of building a 1 million square foot warehouse and distribution center for the United Parcel Service (UPS), which the opposition describes as comparable in size to Citizens Bank Park. Although the project was allowable under the zoning rules, the developer did have to make a presentation before the city’s nonbinding Civic Design Review (CDR) committee.

“This has the potential of just devastating this community,” O’Hara said during the late 2020 CDR meeting, citing the hundreds of trucks that would stream in and out of the facility every day.

In January 2021, O’Hara’s organization and Sandmeyer appealed the company’s permits to the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment, arguing that the zoning on the site was never meant to support a development of this nature. GBCL’s lawyer, David Orphanides, said the fueling station proposed as part of the project goes above and beyond the underlying zoning.

The company’s 2023 countersuit argued that the neighborhood group’s case was “filed solely for the purpose of harassing Relteva, thwarting its development plans, and intentionally interfering with its known contract with UPS.”

The firm cites the sheer number of witnesses against the project as evidence of a strategy of needless delay. It led to testimony so lengthy that the case was extended to a second ZBA hearing almost six months later.

Although the zoning board dismissed challenge, GBCL and Sandmeyer appealed to the Court of Common Pleas in November 2021. That case was, in turn, thrown out “for lack of merit” in July 2022, and they then appealed to Commonwealth Court, where the case is pending.

The new suit filed by the company contends: “At no point during its appeal of the building permit has GBCL set forth any cognizable legal theory or present grounds by which anyone could conclude that its appeal was anything other than frivolous and designed solely to thwart and obstruct Relteva’s development of the property and intentionally interfere with its contract with UPS.”

Is this a SLAPP suit?

The concept of a SLAPP case is that a large, well-resourced organization is acting to quash a smaller actor by suing and subjecting them to ruinous legal costs.

Philadelphia’s volunteer community organizations have long feared that developers could seek vengeance for advocacy work that is sanctioned by the city. There have been a handful of cases in which neighborhood groups have been targeted by developers or business owners during contentious zoning or permitting cases. In other instances, they have been driven to the brink of bankruptcy by seemingly random lawsuits.

A decade ago the Old City Civic Association (OCCA) voted itself out of existence because its insurance costs rose after repeated lawsuits, despite having never lost a case.

But some who have been targeted in the past say that the case of the GBCL is different from most of those circumstances. In previous cases, developers and business owners often sued early in the process to dissuade efforts to fight zoning changes.

In our situation, and to my knowledge in [the Old City] situation, we were not hit with a SLAPP suit for appealing [allowable permits],” said Matt Ruben, former head of the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association (NLNA). “We were sued for attending hearings, having our meetings, opposing [zoning changes or permits] on behalf of the community.”

But Ruben says there are parallels to the cases other organizations have faced, such as the company’s contention that the neighborhood group and its allies have no legal basis for their claim.

“There are some similarities with us, like the claim of ‘tortious interference,’” said Ruben. “I’ve seen that in a lot of legal complaints, and it seems like a generic claim that ‘you are using the legal process in a way I don’t like.’”

No date has set for a hearing. In a brief interview O’Hara said the case is already having an effect. Some local residents are now hesitant to volunteer. He fears the organization’s insurance costs will skyrocket no matter what happens, putting its future in question.

“This whole case is giving me a knot in my stomach,” he said.

©2023 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon