Lawsuit against Hurchalla just legal harassment 

Posted: 5:30 am Sunday, July 27th, 2014   By Sally Swartz

Lake Point, a controversial 2,200 acre chunk of land in western Martin County, for a decade has drawn schemers who want to make money from it. Now Lake Point is tangled in lawsuits and involved — again — in a county commission election.

It also persists in a Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation — SLAPP — against former Martin commissioner Maggy Hurchalla. Last week, Hurchalla appealed on a website,http://www.SLAPPMaggy.com, for help paying almost $100,000 in legal bills.

Early owners of the Lake Point land wanted to turn sugar cane fields into a polo-oriented housing development. A later owner made it a rock mine, then planned to store water on the land.

In 2009, Lake Point developers made deals with the previous Martin commission majority and South Florida Water Management District to operate the mine and store water. They contributed to the campaigns of Commissioner Doug Smith ($9,000) and former commissioners Ed Ciampi ($9,000) and Patrick Hayes ($7,000), the commission majority that approved the contract. Martin voters nixed Ciampi and Hayes in 2012.

A former Lake Point employee is seeking incumbent Martin Commissioner Ed Fielding’s District 2 seat in the Aug. 26 primary election. Stacey Hetherington said she worked for Lake Point until September. The Stuart Martin Chamber of Commerce and a Lake Point website still list her as Lake Point representative. She doesn’t mention Lake Point on her website.

Meantime, Lake Point’s lawsuits against the water district, Martin County and Hurchalla continue.

An Aug. 5 hearing will decide the water district’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The district claims, among other issues, it never authorized Lake Point to sell water.

Martin County, sued for enforcing its development rules, has settled some issues, but still claims Lake Point is mining outside authorized areas and hasn’t maintained wetland preserves on the land. Martin also contends Lake Point’s project threatens the health of the rivers and estuary.

Hurchalla is being sued for “tortious interference,” she writes on the website, “because they claim I made the water management district and the county ask questions about their project.”

Both Martin County and Hurchalla have filed counter claims against Lake Point.

Like all SLAPPs, this one is not about winning. The idea is to wear down the target with mounting legal bills and the stress of dealing with court procedures. A developer with deep pockets aims to silence critics and scare off other opponents. Some states have laws to protect residents from SLAPPs but Florida isn’t one of them. In Hurchalla’s case, the suit seeks to stop her questions, comments and emails criticizing environmental aspects of Lake Point’s project.

Hetherington said in an interview she doesn’t think the lawsuit against Hurchalla is a SLAPP.

Hurchalla, a 73-year-old grandmother, architect of Martin’s protective growth plan and winner of several state and national environmental awards, said all money raised for the fund will go to legal expenses. She hopes some money will be left over “to contribute to a fund to defend the next person who gets slapped.”

Hearings, depositions and research surrounding the SLAPP, she said, have been “exceedingly” time-consuming.
The lawsuit “has been a large part of my life when I didn’t have a lot of time to give.” Hurchalla helps ill family members, including her sister, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, who has Parkinson’s disease.

A long list of Treasure Coast residents have endured SLAPPs. Some have settled or stopped speaking at public meetings, writing to newspapers and emailing elected officials. Others, like Hurchalla, have filed SLAPP-back suits.

Hurchalla’s website plainly outlines Lake Point’s history, issues and players. With a Lake Point-affiliated candidate in the primary, it’s timely.
And Hurchalla has no plans to stop exercising her right to speak out.

“What would I do if I gave up?” she asks. “Say I lied? I didn’t.”

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‘Big money’ PACs lose out in Martin elections, but likely will be back

Posted: 6:00 am Sunday, August 31st, 2014   By Sally Swartz

Clean water and careful growth trumped big money and “questionable” attack ads in Tuesday’s primary election in Martin County. Sarah Heard, a 12-year incumbent, won another term on the Martin County Commission after surviving one of the dirtiest and most expensive smear campaigns in county history.

Incumbent Ed Fielding, another careful growther under attack, won the primary and faces no-party candidate Ron Rose in November.

“We avoided the traps set with hundreds of thousands of dollars from outside developers and hidden sources,” former commissioner Donna Melzer wrote in an email. “Martin County voters did it. Yeah!”

Who supplied some of the big money became clearer on election day when a local political action committee, Martin County Residents for Tax Fairness, Inc., finally filed a report showing almost $151,000 in campaign contributions from other PACs. More likely will show up on final reports.

One PAC, Floridians for Accountability, shows $99,000 in donations from Lake Point holdings in Indiantown. Lake Point owns a rock mine in western Martin, and is suing the county and South Florida Water Management District. Lake Point wants to ignore Martin wetlands protection rules, and to sell water from Martin and Lake Okeechobee to other South Florida counties.

The Floridians for Accountability PAC reports another $34,000 from other corporations linked to Lake Point and George Lindemann Jr. in Miami.

On the same days Lake Point gave the money to Floridians for Accountability — Aug. 18-21 — the Floridians PAC gave $120,000 to the local PAC, Martin County Residents for Tax Fairness.

“The Lake Point entities,” environmental lawyer Virginia Sherlock said in an email are “operated by George Lindemann Jr.” The Lake Point groups “spent hundreds of thousands of dollars,” she adds, “on the committees, and on the campaigns of Heard’s and Fielding’s opponents.”

The local PAC also lists Aug. 21 donations of $22,735 from Martin County Infrastructure Policy Council Inc. and $6,673 from Treasure Coast Citizens Council. Both corporations list Palm City addresses. But like an earlier corporate donor that gave $23,000 to the PAC, neither is registered with the state.

The PACs used the money for a website attacking Heard, Facebook ads linking to the website, and on radio and TV ads attacking her. The ads accused her of “being a fake environmentalist,” raising taxes and bogus ethics complaints. But residents remembered her hard work and trips to Washington D.C. and Tallahassee to fight for the river. Taxes are lower, and the fake ethics complaint was filed by an organizer of the local PAC.

Money also went to eight 9 x 12-inch color postcards attacking Heard and Fielding and six each promoting their opponents, Barbara Clowdus and Stacey Hetherington.

Both Clowdus, owner of a monthly newspaper that closed down during the election, and Lake Point employee Hetherington, who received 10 $1,000 donations from corporations and individuals linked to Lake Point at the same Miami address, claimed to be environmentalists.

That’s not surprising. In an election year, every Martin candidate wants to be one.

A major factor in Fielding’s race was John Schierbaum, who got 11 percent of the votes to Hetherington’s 42 percent. That made Fielding, with more than 46 percent, the winner. In the past, careful growth candidates have lost in three-candidate races, but Fielding prevailed in this one.

For all that the big money folks lost in this election, they did show that it’s possible to take two unknown people with scant or no record of civic involvement and get 42-44 percent of the vote. (Heard won 56 percent to Clowdus’ 44 percent.) Voter turnout was shockingly low, at 25 percent of Martin’s almost 105,000 registered voters.

The big bankrollers also showed it’s possible to keep donations secret until election day, when it’s too late to let residents know what’s going on. Apparently, no state or local authority can do anything about this. Florida’s elections laws need an honest overhaul.

The real champs in this election are Martin voters, who showed they are savvy enough to tell truth from lies and honest records of hard work from slick promises.

For now, the clean water advocates and careful growthers are enjoying a victory. Then it’s back to work for Fielding. The big bucks the dirty tricksters spent losing this election are a drop in the bucket to the folks who tried to buy it. In a heartbeat, they’ll be back with more wads of cash and a new plan of attack.

Sally Swartz is a former member of The Post Editorial Board.