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‘Developer’ not a dirty word in Chesterfield

Being linked to “developers” is not defamatory in Chesterfield County.

Chesterfield County Circuit Judge Herbert C. Gill has dismissed a local businessman’s $1.35 million defamation suit against residents who opposed a sewer line the businessman supported by saying the businessman was “being paid by developers.”

This claim and other statements occurred in letters the residents wrote protesting the sewer line. Gill said in Habeck v. Cosby that the letter-writers’ “strong emotional language” and “definite current of angry sarcasm” undercut any impression the writers were stating fact.

Plaintiff Roger Habeck, who ran as an Independent against Sen. Steve Martin, R-Chesterfield, in 2007, objected to statements that “developers” had hired Habeck to “ram an unwanted and unneeded sewer line down our throats,” and that the “plan reeks of extortion.” Habeck also objected to statements that he did “not give a rat’s tail about any of us” and that residents would have only 10 years, not 20, to pay for the sewer line.

But “developer” is not a dirty word in Chesterfield.

The term “developer” has “too many definitions and subjective interpretations,” Gill said. A homeowner who seeks to improve his own property could be a “developer,” or a “developer” could “be an outside buyer seeking to change the nature of the property.”

Given that the letters were written “in the context of a community organizing effort” and used “loose, figurative, [and] hyperbolic” language, no reasonable person would interpret the letters to state actual facts about Habeck, the judge concluded.
By Deborah Elkins

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