Summary judgment is sought in lawsuit

Defendants want apartment-protest case thrown out on free-speech grounds

By Lewis Griswold

The Fresno Bee, September 29, 1999

More than two years after a developer sued 12 northwest Fresno residents for publicly opposing his proposed apartment complex, the residents are hoping to win the case on free-speech grounds.

U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger listened Monday as lawyers argued for his summary judgment in favor of the residents, but he gave no indication which way he leans or when he’ll issue a ruling.

Clovis developer Peter Herzog sued the residents, the city of Fresno and five council members — including Chris Mathys, who represents the district.

The lawsuit, by Affordable Housing Development Company and Ashwood Construction, seeks $ 27 million.

Opposition grew because 20% of the planned 324-unit apartment complex named Wellington Place was to be rented to residents with wages between $ 16,000 and $ 24,000 a year. Five council members voted against it — Mathys, Garry Bredefeld, Henry Perea, Sal Quintero and Dan Ronquillo.

Resident Travis Compton, who served on a citizens advisory group that reviews proposed developments in northwest Fresno, is represented by lawyer Nicholas Hentoff of the Center for Individual Rights, a public-interest firm based in Washington, D.C. Hentoff, the son of Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff, said his law firm decided to take the Fresno case because “there are very important First Amendment issues here.”

“He (Herzog) is using the courts to punish somebody just because they exercised their First Amendment rights,” Hentoff argued. “They want to silence the opposition.”

Herzog’s lawyer, William Davis of Irvine, said the residents are being sued because they signed agreements when they bought their homes to not challenge the planned apartments.

Those who opposed the low-income project violated federal laws against housing discrimination, Davis said.

The action in federal court Monday involved only the residents being sued. The city’s motion for summary judgment will be heard Oct. 25.