TRAVERSE CITY — A bitter lawsuit that had its roots in a 2004 zoning dispute ended today in 13th Circuit Court, when Meijer and The Village of Grand Traverse agreed to pay five Acme Township officials a combined $1.5 million.
Acme planning Commissioners Robert Carstens and Clare David, as well as Trustees Ron Hardin, Erick Takayama and Frank Zarafonitis, each will receive $300,000 before taxes and attorney fees.
The Acme officials said they settled for several reasons, and cited lawsuit stress, a need for the community to heal, and their hope the award was sufficient to deter Meijer and other developers from abusing local governments.
“Every one of these people suffered a great deal of stress and the impact on our lives and our families was terrible,” Takayama said. “We all felt this was enough of a fine, enough of a settlement cost to Meijer, that there was a lesson that this is not the path to take for developers.”
Unnamed Meijer officials said in a joint press release they regretted the situation that led to the suit. They apologized to the community and individuals affected by their actions.
Lawyers for Meijer and Dickinson Wright refused comment on Wednesday. An official with The Village said he wanted to close the door on a case that inflamed the Acme community.
“I just think it’s in everybody’s interest to move on, and I’m happy to have this behind me,” said Steve Smith, The Village’s managing partner. “I’ve never been in litigation before in my life, and I regret that litigation resulted from this.”
Acme officials alleged that Meijer, The Village, and their former attorneys, Dickinson Wright PLLC and Timothy Stoepker, intentionally harmed them through a frivolous lawsuit, illegal campaign activity and secret financial support of a citizens group that harassed them.
Meijer and The Village sought to build a large, hotly contested development along M-72, and sued both Acme Township and eight officials individually in 2005. Acme officials counter-sued in 2008, and attorneys for Meijer and Dickinson Wright filed several appeals that delayed the lawsuit.
Zarafonitis said never realized suing Meijer and The Village could be so nerve-wracking.
Taking a role as a plaintiff was as difficult as when Meijer targeted Zarafonitis and other Acme township officials in a 2007 suit, he said.
“It was more bothersome, waiting to see what was going to happen next, thinking about it every day. It just ate at me,” Zarafonitis said. “I’m just happy it’s over.”
Traverse City attorneys Michael Dettmer and Robert Garvey represented the Acme officials. Even a potential victory at trial would have prompted appeals that could have dragged out the suit for years, they said.
“This took one year to get from where we started to here, and if they continued the appeal process it could take 10 more years, and I didn’t particularly look forward to being involved for that amount of time,” Carstens said. “From my perspective, that’s not particularly healthy.”
Carstens said memories lingered of secret tactics Meijer and its partners used against township officials between 2004-08.
“You’re wondering, are your phones tapped, if you can trust people, if you can talk about things freely,” Carstens said. “It engendered considerable paranoia.”
Acme officials’ decision to sue for malicious prosecution and abuse of court process was prompted by what they perceived as the state’s failure to adequately punish Meijer and its partners, Dettmer said.
Meijer last year acknowledged wrongdoing and paid the state more than $190,000 for felony violations of Michigan campaign finance laws. Meijer’s confession came after former Acme Township Treasurer Bill Boltres sued the Grand Rapids-based retailer and depositions in that case uncovered the company’s illegal activity.
“Taking that $190,000 was a slap on the wrist and really fired up these people,” Dettmer said.
Acme officials hoped for punitive damages against Meijer, but Michigan law wouldn’t allow such awards, a fact that “took away a lot of our thunder,” Hardin said.
Acme officials decided the settlement, at almost eight times the penalty imposed by the Secretary of State’s office, would serve as a deterrent.
Dettmer and Garvey will receive 25 percent, or $375,000, Garvey said. The awards are taxed before attorney fees are deducted, so Acme officials can expect to clear around $100,000 each.
“None of us are quitting our day jobs over this deal,” Hardin said. “We didn’t do this for money. We were looking for a damage award that had some punitive weight so no one would ever have to live through this again.”
Garvey, who also owns a home in Acme Township, said it’s not unusual for local officials to back down when faced by harsh pressure from developers. He called the settlement “almost a landmark” for such a legal claim in Michigan, a victory that may dissuade others from using so-called SLAPP suits to intimidate local officials.
“I think the award was enough under the circumstances to send a message to Meijer,” Garvey said. “You got to sell a lot ... to make up $1.5 million.”
The settlement stops the parties from suing each other again over anything related to the proposed developments, with one exception.
Meijer and the Village preserved their right to sue Dickinson Wright and its attorneys. The law firm did not contribute to the settlement, Dettmer said.
“I think they are going to go after (Dickinson Wright),” Dettmer said. “I think they want reimbursement for the money and they weren’t happy about how they were represented by Dickinson Wright.”