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Activist group fighting Museum House condo tower appeals ruling on lawsuit

Activist group fighting Museum House condo tower appeals ruling on lawsuit
Newport Beach Assistant City Clerk Jennifer Nelson counts petition signatures submitted by Line in the Sand in December. (File photo | Daily Pilot)

Activists who fought a condominium tower planned for the Orange County Museum of Art's Newport Beach site are appealing a judge's ruling that denied a lawsuit against them violated their free speech rights.

Line in the Sand filed the appeal June 7 with the California Courts of Appeal to reverse Orange County Superior Court Judge Geoffrey Glass' May 26 decision that the museum did not file what is known as a SLAPP suit against the activist group when it challenged the validity of the group's referendum petition in January.

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SLAPP, which stands for "strategic lawsuit against public participation," is a type of suit intended to burden opponents until they drop their dissent. California is one of 28 states that has anti-SLAPP laws.

Line in the Sand President Dennis Baker said the group is trying to cap its legal expenses by trying to get the case dismissed instead of heading to trial. The group has already spent about $55,000 in legal fees, he said.

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If they go straight ahead with the trial, "then it's an open-ended, huge money suck," Baker said. "Law and justice shouldn't be hinging on money, but that's our whole point."

Had Glass agreed with Line in the Sand's contention that the museum's lawsuit was an attempt to silence its speech, the suit would have been dismissed. If the appeals court also rules against Line in the Sand, the group can appeal again or resume trial proceedings at the county Superior Court level.

OCMA sued early this year, claiming Line in the Sand's petition should be voided because it didn't comply with state law. The suit argued that the petition didn't contain all necessary documents and that its font size was "virtually unreadable."

Glass gave two reasons for denying Line in the Sand's motion: The group, as a political action committee, was not qualified to file the motion because it is not an individual. He said adhering to the required format for a referendum petition does not overly burden the petitioner and added that the missing documents are required to avoid confusing the electorate.

Developer Related California was set to convert the art museum's site in Newport Center into a 25-story, 100-unit condo tower called Museum House. OCMA planned to move to a new location in Costa Mesa.

But after Line in the Sand collected more than enough voter signatures to take the Museum House issue to a public vote, the Newport Beach City Council earlier this year revoked the approval it had granted the project last year.

Twitter: @Daily_PilotHD

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