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Sonoma city officials question barrage of legal threats

Commercial businesses like Mikey Cannon's music school currently occupy some of First Street East properties that Ed Routhier and Caymus Capital have attempted to turn into a housing-hotel development, sparking the formation of a neighborhood group known as Protect Sonoma. (Christian Kallen/Index-Tribune)

CHRISTIAN KALLEN AND JASON WALSH,

In a case of what one Sonoma City Council member has described as “tactics of intimidation and bullying,” attorneys for Sonoma developer Ed Routhier and his company Caymus Capital have over the course of the last 18 months sent multiple letters to various city commissioners and council members charging them with bias against their client and demanding that some recuse themselves from future decisions about his projects.

The run of letters stretches back at least to June 2016, when attorneys from the Santa Rosa law offices of Perry, Johnson, Anderson, Miller and Moskowitz sent then-Mayor Laurie Gallian a letter alleging then-Planning Commissioner Bill Willers was biased against Routhier’s mixed-use development proposal along First Street East.

The letter alleged Willers had a “predetermined opinion” to oppose the project, which proposed to build a hotel, apartments, café and spa. Known as the First Street East Project, it faced stiff opposition from a neighborhood group called Protect Sonoma and was eventually withdrawn in September of 2017. The letter demanded Willers’ recusal from any decisions on the project.

Since 2016, Routhier’s attorneys have sent at least three more letters to city officials alleging bias against their client, including letters to or about City Councilmember Rachel Hundley, Planning Commissioner Kelso Barnett and Planning Commissioner James Bohar.

Over that period of time, Routhier’s attorneys have also sent at least three other letters threatening litigation to various residents or businesses over their public communications regarding Caymus’s business interests.

The letter to Hundley, dated Jan. 3, 2018, also demanded that she recuse herself from voting on any of Routhier’s or Caymus’s projects in her role as a member of the city council. It requested she issue Routhier a personal apology and promise to stay out of his business affairs.

The letter alleges Hundley had made public comments that Routhier had “broken criminal laws about price gouging on rents” at one of Caymus Capital’s apartment buildings following the October fires.

According to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office, price gouging allegations dating from November against Caymus are “still being actively investigated,” as of Feb. 13.

The Jan. 3 letter to Hundley says the price-gouging allegation is “absolutely false” and says further legal action can be avoided if Hundley were to “identify who made such statements (about price gouging)” to Routhier and his attorneys.

Prior to sending the letter to Hundley, attorneys for Routhier on Dec. 14, 2017 issued a public information request to the City Clerk asking for “any and all records regarding communications with Protect Sonoma and any of the following individuals,” a list of 13 names that includes Hundley as well as Planning Commission members Bohar and Barnett, along with supporters of Protect Sonoma.

In an email to the Index-Tribune, Hundley called the letter sent to her “baseless,” adding, “even developers that resort to tactics of intimidation and bullying are entitled to due process and a fair hearing on the merits of their projects.” She said she intended to participate in all hearings on upcoming developments, including those of Routhier and Caymus Capital.

Last week, following inquiries about the letter from the Index-Tribune, Routhier’s attorneys “formally rescind(ed)” the letter to Hundley and apologized to the councilwoman.

As to the other public officials being asked to recuse themselves from projects, former Planning Commissioner Willers said he did not want to recuse himself from voting last year on the First Street East Project, though he was absent from the meeting when the vote took place. Planning Commissioner Kelso Barnett owns property near the downtown, which would force his recusal on projects in that area according to city policy.

Planning Commissioner James Bohar wouldn’t comment on the letter alleging his bias. But he told the Index-Tribune that his “position as planning commissioner should and does preclude my making a public comment about these matters.”

According to the City of Sonoma, Caymus Capital has no current proposals of its own coming up for review by the Planning Commission or the City Council.

However, Caymus does have a development interest in a project currently under appeal to the City Council. In the LLC filing for 228 Brazil St. – one of the three properties owned by Sonoma resident Bill Jasper coming to the City Council for review on March 1 – listed Caymus Capital as its “manager.”

The lot at 228 Brazil is one of three lots proposed for development by Jasper. Jasper has proposed three single-home dwelling projects on three properties at the end of Fourth Street East.

Jasper is an investor with Sonoma Media Investments, which publishes the Index-Tribune.

In a written statement to the Index-Tribune, Routhier confirmed that, “Caymus Capital is providing development services on Mr. Jasper’s properties as it does with many landowners.”

Routhier defended the use of such litigation threats as a way to “defend property rights” so long as the city council “continues to appoint individuals who have personal agendas to the Planning Commission.”

“The number of letters it takes from lawyers to protect an owner’s property rights is proportional to the depth of a city’s NIMBY problem and its hidden political agendas,” wrote Routhier. “So if multiple letters are required, one can appreciate how difficult the problem is for the property owner.”

Added Routhier: “I’m confident Sonomans in general support property owners standing up for their rights, and understand that in today’s highly charged political environment the law is there to protect them from being victims of political agendas.”

Sonoma City Attorney Jeffrey Walter said letters from developers threatening litigation are “fairly commonplace.” But, what makes this situation different, added Walter, is “the targeting of specific council members and political officials.”

“That is pretty unusual, in my experience,” said Walter.

Walter has served as Sonoma’s city attorney for nine years and says he’s never experienced the volume of letters threatening litigation against city officials. He has represented other cities as attorney since 1981.

“It’s an unusual number of requests that a city official recuse themselves – just the number of them, in a compressed period of time,” said Walter.

While Walter wouldn’t comment on the validity of the various allegations of bias, he did raise the issue of litigation referred to in legal circles as SLAPP, an acronym for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.

According to the California Anti-SLAPP Project, a public interest law firm and policy organization, “SLAPPs are often brought by corporations, real estate developers, or government officials and entities against individuals or organizations who oppose them on public issues.”

“While most SLAPPs are legally meritless,” says the CASP website, “they can effectively achieve their principal purpose: to chill public debate on specific issues.”

In response to such litigation, state Anti-SLAPP legislation was passed in 1992 to protect people from lawsuits of questionable merit intended to “censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition,” according to CASP. In California, for instance, a defendant in a SLAPP lawsuit can petition the court to dismiss the suit unless litigants can demonstrate a likelihood that they would prevail in the case.

But, as Walter points out, an Anti-SLAPP defense is only invoked when an actual lawsuit is filed. To date, none have been filed in Sonoma by Routhier or Caymus Capital.

Email Christian at Christian.kallen@sonomanews.com; email Jason at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.