The Battle in the River Bottoms nearly erupted into full-scale legal war this week, but the main combatants now appear to be negotiating a cease-fire or maybe even a truce.
Attorneys for the developer of the proposed RiverPark office complex and a group of residents calling themselves SOS (Save Open Space) began peace talks they hope will keep the dispute out of court.But SOS members, who fiercely oppose the project, and developer Gerald Anderson may not be ready to bury the hatchet just yet.
The war went beyond mere words this week when Anderson served SOS founders Janalee Tobias and Judy Feld with copies of a $1.2 million-plus lawsuit. The suit has not yet been filed in 3rd District Court, but it could be if the two factions don't come to terms.
Anderson, who believes he has been illegally ambushed by SOS, says he was placing the South Jordan residents on notice that he would not let them continue to interfere with his contractual and economic dealings.
The "pre-litigation" notice mostly enraged the SOS folks, however, and they fired back by enlisting attorneys of their own and complaining the threatened suit was an assault on their First Amendment right to speak freely.
They also began collecting signatures of supporters willing to volunteer in writing to throw their bodies on the legal barbed wire and be named in the suit.
South Jordan resident Brent Foutz, a member of SOS, sent Anderson's attorney a letter demanding to have his name included as a defendant in the lawsuit. SOS organizers expect others to make the same request.
Emotions soared high Wednesday night after the South Jordan Planning Commission voted 5-0 to recommend City Council approval of a conditional-use permit and conceptual site plan for Anderson's project.
If Anderson's suit does get filed, it will seek at least $200,000 general damages and $1 million punitive damages plus legal expenses.
It also will ask the court to prohibit SOS from interfering with the developers' contractual and economic relations.
Anderson contends SOS has meddled in his dealings with landowner Boyd Williams, who holds a key piece of ground adjacent to land already purchased by the developer south of 10600 South and west of the Jordan River.
But Tobias and Feld said the suit is a blatant attempt to intimidate people opposed to the project.
"I'm appalled," said Feld. "I feel like I'm back in elementary school and there's a bully who wants me to do what he wants.
"But we're not just going to sit down and shut up," she added.
Tobias said she denies Anderson's allegations that she tried to interfere in the developer's business relations with Williams.
"This transcends an open-space issue," she said. "It's a First Amendment issue . . . we have the freedom to publicly seek redress of our grievances. At no time have we told landowners they should get out of legal contracts."
But Anderson said Tuesday Tobias had attempted as late as January to persuade Williams not to sell his land to the developer, even though Anderson had renegotiated an option on the property.
Williams also told the Deseret News he had been contacted by SOS or people associated with the group several times while his land was under option to Anderson.
He also indicated he is so angered by the conduct of SOS representatives that neither he nor his family will ever sell the ground to SOS or anyone associated with it.
Tobias and Feld have asked local attorney Ross "Rocky" Anderson, a recent congressional candidate, to champion their cause.
Anderson, who has been prominent in civil rights cases, said Thursday he is now representing SOS "because I am so outraged by the suit.
"This is an abuse of the justice system and an effort to discourage citizens from community activism," he said. "It has a tremendous chilling effect . . . it's difficult enough to find people willing to take a stand on issues."
But the developer's attorney, Jeffrey Walker, said he's encouraged that the factions are now talking and trying to hammer out some kind of settlement agreement.
"Our goal was to stop what we believe to be wrongful conduct" by the SOS faction, he said. "Talks have been very productive . . . we're trying to be less adversarial."
Tobias said Thursday the real tragedy is that the river bottoms dispute has damaged old friendships "and turned neighbor against neighbor over a land deal.
"That wasn't supposed to happen," she added.