Bethany prevails in settlement of lawsuit over cottage relocation
The Bethany Beach Town Council on May 12 unanimously approved a settlement in the lawsuit against it by neighbors of the Town-owned Maryland Avenue Extension property planned to become the new home to the historic Dinker Cottage.
In exchange for the plaintiffs paying $20,000 to offset some of the Town’s attorney fees in the case and their dropping the one remaining count in the case, the Town agreed to not pursue claims against the plaintiffs involving alleged bad-faith litigation and attempts to create a financial burden on the Town through FOIA requests.
Work to relocate the cottage could proceed later this month, Town Manager Cliff Graviet told the Coastal Point.
On March 10, property owners Phillip L. and Mary C. Feliciano, Joseph and Mary Jane Tropea and David Namrow, whose three properties are near the Maryland Avenue location, had filed suit against the Town in the Delaware Chancery Court, seeking to stop the relocation of the historic cottage that had recently been donated to the Town.
The plaintiffs were among a number of the neighbors of the property who had raised objections to the plan to move the cottage to the site, expressing concerns over the loss of the green space that had been used as a de facto park by some of the neighbors and the potential for negative impacts from having a structure there, the resulting traffic and a more established public use.
According to Graviet, all parties to the suit had agreed to meet an April 18 discovery requirement set by the Court of Chancery; however, when the plaintiffs and their attorney were unable to fulfill that requirement, three of the suit’s original four counts were dropped. At that point, Namrow dropped out of the lawsuit, leaving the Felicianos and Tropeas to pursue the suit.
The Town filed an answer to the amended complaints on April 26, maintaining that the plaintiffs’ claims were made in bad faith and asking for recovery of legal fees incurred in the litigation.
“Subsequently, immediately following the deposition of Mr. Feliciano on April 29, the plaintiffs decided they wished to withdraw the remaining claim and settle the case,” Graviet explained.
The agreement to resolve the lawsuit was signed by the plaintiffs on May 4 and approved by the town council on May 12, with the plaintiffs agreeing to drop the one remaining count of the four originally listed — regarding Town maps — and to pay the Town $20,000 to help defray the legal costs incurred by the Town in defending the lawsuit. That payment was in the hands of Town’s attorney on May 11, and he delivered it to Graviet upon completion of the May 12 special meeting.
As part of the settlement, Graviet noted, the Town reaffirmed its original intent to relocate the 115-year-old Dinker Cottage, donated to the town by Christina and Clem Edgar, to the location approved unanimously by the council at its January meeting. The Town also therein reaffirmed the basic elements of its original decision to accept Dinker Cottage, which included some continued but limited access to portions of the property for the neighbors.
“In addition, in exchange for the plaintiffs’ payment of $20,000 in attorney fees, the Town has agreed not to pursue its claims against the Plaintiffs of bad faith litigation,” Graviet said.
“We’ve believed from the beginning that this lawsuit was frivolous and without merit, an attempt by these residents to coerce the town council into abandoning their plan to move the Dinker Cottage to an area near their homes that they wished to continue to use for their personal enjoyment,” Mayor Jack Gordon said.
“We learned of the plaintiffs’ attempt to not only encourage many of their neighbors to join in the litigation, but also to file multiple Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the Town for the purpose of creating a financial burden for the Town without concern for the merits of their litigation.”
To support that claim, the Town offered excerpts from emails between the plaintiffs and others, encouraging FOIA requests, as evidence of the plaintiffs’ alleged efforts to strong-arm the Town through legal costs.
According to the Town, Tony Namrow had written to Molly Feliciano and 50 others, in part: “Our only possible hope of solution in our favor is to threaten a law suit for $500K + for devaluation of our homes, environmental degradation and loss of quality of life. We have got to go after their jugular and make them blink. Do I think the town wants to pay their counsel $30K to defend this? I don’t know but that appears to be our only recourse.”
Another excerpt from an email the Town said Phillip Feliciano wrote Tony Namrow and 50 others reads, “Tony you are on target follow the money. That is why Joe and I believe sending freedom of information requests by the most people will cause them to make a move monetarily. For a fact just the FOIA requests I have made has cost them $8000.00 in attorney’s fee . Can you imagine if 10 people file for requests.”
Another excerpt from an email the Town said Tony Namrow wrote reads, in part: “As you Joe mentioned and my experience with the town; the only thing that will get them to stop...or at least pause if $$$$. If we threaten...just threaten a lawsuit for enough dollars to make them re-think...that is our only recourse. Will they have the will to consider a large enough settlement? Don’t know but I do know they will recognize they have to pay to defend it...and they are already over budget.”
The emails reference efforts by the plaintiffs to obtain information in the case and allege the Town was not providing all of what they had requested.
Gordon said on May 12, “We are pleased with the final outcome and, while the Town still incurred significant costs to the taxpayers of legal fees, the recovery of $20,000 of those fees helps. We look forward to going ahead as early as possible with our project of relocating the Dinker Cottage so that residents and visitors can enjoy a part of Bethany’s history.”
A vote regarding work to move the cottage to the site is on the council’s May 20 agenda. A map of the planned location is available online at http://www.townofbethanybeach.com/DocumentCenter/View/2150.