Chapel by the Lake development debate: Citizen group claims city is trying to shut them up

Once a scenic home for worshippers, the “Chapel by the Lake” site in West Palm Beach has become a waterfront battleground, with the city and developer on one side and a citizens group on the other.

“It doesn't feel good and it doesn't smell good,” said Nancy Pullum, President of Citizens for Thoughtful Growth. 

The 400 member citizen group recently sued the City of West Palm Beach to fight a high rise tower from being built on the Chapel site.

Then the developer. G.A.K., fired back and counter-sued the citizens. 

"There's a real concerted effort to outspend us and bring us to our knees,” Pullum said.

Now the Contact 5 Investigators have learned that the attorney working for the developer is also defending the city in the suit filed against it.  According to the city contract, the attorney group, Reid-Burman, is doing it at no cost.

"I was thunderstruck that the city would be endorsing and supporting this action by using the same attorneys and ganging up on the citizens," said Pullum.

“To me it's immoral, it's unethical and it's repressive by the city,” said Bob Critton, the attorney representing Citizens for Thoughtful Group (CTG).

“What the developers in essence filed is what is known as a SLAPP suit, a strategic lawsuit against public participation. What they're trying to do is silence that citizen's group,” said Critton.

“They were heard. Nobody shut them down, they were heard completely. They just didn't like the results,” said Mike Burman, the attorney representing the developer and the city.

“This group opposes every development in the city. Not just waterfront development, they oppose everything,” Burman told the Contact 5 Investigators.

"Ethically it looks bad,” said Palm Beach Atlantic Ethics Professor, Craig Hanson. He says the relationship between the city and the developer’s attorney raises questions about what might have been said  behind closed doors.

"It lends the appearance that the developer is using the power of the city to silence speech which looks on the face of it unfair," he said.

In a statement e-mailed to the Contact 5 Investigators, City of West Palm Beach spokesman, Elliott Cohen stated:

“Cities routinely use outside attorneys to help them with cases and in this case both the city and the developer have the same legal position, namely that the process was appropriate and lawful. We are the ones being sued, so I don't quite understand how anyone would view our defending ourselves against a lawsuit as anything but defending ourselves. They've filed a lawsuit. We are responding in court, and everyone will have their constitutionally guaranteed right to be heard by a judge. That's how the process is supposed to work, and that's what is happening.”