Legal Problems Due to Starting Petition

Visitor Asks: What are the legal repercussions of starting a petition? Can I be sued if I start a petition against a rezoning for a certain development?

Editors Reply: A civil suit can be filed over almost any insult these days.

Yes, you could be sued, but it seems very unlikely. It would be quite improbable that someone could prevail against you in a lower court, and most certainly we think you would win any appeal.

Notice we are not attorneys, but city planners, so you cannot rely on us for legal advice, as they say. Even though the moment for this questioner has passed, we answer for the sake of others who may be worried about the same thing.

Here is the way we think about this question. A rezoning application is a public action in a governmental setting. As such, it is subject to both public hearing requirements and fair debate as a matter of public policy.

As long as you are starting a petition that is presented in a public way (meaning it is not somehow delivered in private to the governing body that makes the decision), it is part of a public record and therefore part of the public debate.

You and others who sign the petition have a right to express yourself; in fact, the public hearing requirements in all U.S. states pertaining to rezoning matters emphasize the fact that all are welcome to express their opinion in a timely fashion.

You have to decide whether you and your family can bear any possible risk of a frivolous lawsuit, in order to express yourself to the city or town council. All four of us who write for this site said that we would do it in a heartbeat if we felt sure of our position--but of course, we are city planners and accustomed to seeing rezoning cases become quite heated and then die down right away after a decision is made.

Just a few common sense caveats to be aware of:

1. As we implied already, make sure this petition is handed in publicly rather than some secret communication. This makes your action in starting a petition legitimately appear to be just part of public dialogue on a current question before a public body.

2. Make the petition itself impersonal--don't make attacks on the character, integrity, motivation, or personal traits of the petitioner, owner, or developer. Talk solely about the public policy question of what the zoning should be, and why you think so.

3. Make the petition itself true, based on your understanding of the situation at the time. If you willingly told a big lie right in the petition, and the city council was taken in by that lie, it might be slightly less crazy for a developer or property owner to file a lawsuit about the whole matter.

4. Of course if you are going to start and file a petition to oppose a rezoning, you should give it to the governing body in a timely fashion, while there is still time for them to act. To do something after the vote has occurred makes it look like more of a protest rather than part of public dialogue, and then it begins to seem more like a personal vendetta.

5. In oral comments as you or another petitioner are presenting the petition to your town council, keep it civil and impersonal. Personal attacks will get you nowhere. It is all right to show your anger at some point in your testimony, but do not let the whole thing sound like an angry rant. This kind of behavior might be what would provoke people to irrational lawsuits.

In sum, if you are sensible about it, there is close to zero risk (but never zero) of being the target of a lawsuit due to starting a petition about a rezoning question.

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