Since the private social networking website NextDoor.com was introduced in Costa Mesa about a year ago, users have found myriad uses, like advertising used televisions for sale or an open house at the Orange County Fairgrounds.
However, among the otherwise innocuous information, which is pegged to various neighborhoods within the city, is the occasional political thread that generates its own debate, whether about recent City Council decisions, traffic problems or calls for action against coyote attacks.
In the NextDoor pages for the Eastside and its environs in Newport Beach, the topic of sober-living homes has generated particularly fierce online commentary, to the extent that a group of people were recently threatened with a libel lawsuit.
In late May, about eight residents were served letters by two law firms contending that statements they made about local real estate agent Timothy Carr and his business partner, Gary Jabara, were defamatory.
"There are consequences when you say things about people that are untrue, that are negative and cast aspersions," Carr's attorney, Isaac Zfaty of Irvine-based Zfaty Burns, said in an interview this week.
The letters, dated May 20 and 21, contend that the commentary is beyond the protected scope of opinion and that it needs to be deleted from the site. They also argue that the men's professional reputations and businesses suffered because of the online discussions.
Jabara's attorney, Milford Dahl of Costa Mesa-based Rutan & Tucker, in a May 21 letter called the statements and innuendo "hate-laden, factually and outright defamatory."
One post claimed to list sober-living homes owned by Carr or his associated businesses, though Carr and his attorney said the post was inaccurate. At least one of the homes on the list was not his, Carr told the Daily Pilot this week.
Because of the NextDoor post, the family living at the home was harassed by people thinking it was a sober-living house, Carr said.
He was also called a developer and investor of rehabilitation homes. Carr explained that he is neither, simply a landlord.
"He's got no skin in that game," Zfaty said. "They pay him rent like any other person pays him rent."
Carr was also accused on NextDoor of evicting families on an East Wilson Street property. He said he did not own or lease that property, nor had he ever seen it.
Carr said his companies rent out homes to some sober-living operators, but that he has nothing to do with the day-to-day operations.
He added that he is either terminating or not extending some of the lease agreements.
"Because of the controversy, I've chosen to ask them to move and relocate where they can," Carr said.
'Unintentionally hit a nerve'
A recipient of the warnings, Carrie Renfro, got one of her two letters hand-delivered to her Buoy Street home.
"It scared the heck out of me," she said.
Renfro has long been critical of the Eastside's rehabilitation homes, saying they're the source of robberies and other ill effects in her neighborhood.
Last summer, Renfro hosted a Meet the Mayor session where Mayor Jim Righeimer talked about the homes and legal nuances surrounding them.
The NextDoor commentary "unintentionally hit a nerve," said Renfro, who deleted some of her NextDoor postings, per the letter's request.
Mary Spadoni, who also received the letters, agreed.
"There's no doubt in mind," she said. "I think we hit a nerve, and I'm not sure at the time we knew what the nerve was."
Lisa Morlan, who also received the letters, serves on the group that Righeimer recently created to address the homes, the Preserve Our Neighborhoods Task Force.
She called the entire scenario "really bizarre."
She asked the two attorneys for documentation of what she said or did that was offensive to their clients. She said she hasn't received replies to her requests.
Meanwhile, Morlan's comments — which she didn't feel were inappropriate — are still online, but additional related comment threads aren't permitted.
"It hasn't stopped me from wanting to speak up, by any means," Morlan said, calling the lawsuit threat a "slap to silence us."
Like Renfro, Morlan thinks City Hall hasn't done enough to address the negative effects of sober-living homes.
The two are with Take Back Our Neighborhoods, or TBON, a loosely affiliated Costa Mesa group that in May started a petition that seeks more city action on the problem.
City officials have said a basis of the petition — that City Hall grants building permits for rehab-home conversions — is false. The homes receive no special treatment, they said, and must be treated like any other house in single-family neighborhoods, provided they have six or fewer tenants.
Rehab home residents are also considered "disabled," and thus are a protected class, per state and federal law.
TBON's petition — in paper and online forms — now has close to 800 signatures. Organizers are aiming for 1,000 before bringing it before the City Council.
Carr said he considers the matter closed and does not plan to pursue litigation.
"When people are taking shots at you and making things up, that's why we went after these people," Carr said. "Since we did it, they have been quiet, to the best of my knowledge."
Dahl, Jabara's attorney, said he understands the residents' "constitutional right to raise the issue and try to deal with it with citizen action."
"We never wanted to stop the comment regarding this issue," Dahl said. "Most people don't want a [sober-living] home like that next door to their home. I understand that."
He added that the NextDoor comment chains devolved "into a personal attack into an individual and a couple of businesses, rather than dealing with the issue ... it just started spiraling out of control."
Zfaty, Carr's attorney, said he has received apologies from some of the letter recipients. Some have also deleted their posts.
"None of them is going to hear anything else about this," he said. "That's the end of this discussion."