“….they planned to “slow sales” within the Star Valley development. This course of action was even expressly suggested to the Star Valley homeowners by the County Administrator…[S]ometimes the issue of publicity and adversity to sales causes the developers and the home builders to pay a lot more attention to homeowners that are in existing developments … I would suggest that as a good course of action.” ~ Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry
Today, the Pima county supervisors will meet in executive session to consider legal advice related to the defamation lawsuit brought by Tucson developer Joe Cesare in connection with his Star Valley development.
Cesar is the developer of Star Valley Development in southwest Tucson, Arizona. Cesare’s lawsuit lays out what has become common story of County officials’ vindictiveness and the County using its power to intimidate developers who don’t play ball.
Cesare claims that actions by Pima County officials including public comments were defamatory and defamation and damaged his interests in the Star Valley development.
Specifically according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Tucson, Carla Blackwell, Pima County Deputy Director of Development, wrote a letter on April 9, 2014, to Cesare and copied “as many as 1,400 members of the HOA,” in which she accused Cesare and his company of perpetrating “a lack of fiduciary responsibility” on “behalf as the sole Board members and officers (as well as master developer) of the Star Valley Homeowners Association.”
The dispute centers around who is responsible for a new road into the existing neighborhood and other improvements. Cesare claims that the more than $5 million in Pima County impact fees he has paid since 2003 should have been adequate to cover the cost of entry roads, traffic signals, and road widening existing streets.
Cesare’s attorneys say Star Valley has been responsible for more than $5 million in Pima County impact fees since 2003. During that time, according to the complaint, county officials did not pressure Star Valley developers to build or otherwise pay for the construction of additional roadways or traffic signals associated with the development.
Last year, Cesare lost a contract to sell 572 lots in Star Valley because County officials made damaging comments and threated to deny future building permits.
The list of allegations in the complaint includes violation of the First Amendment, defamation, false light, injurious falsehoods, tortuous interference and federal and state racketeering violations.
According to an article in the Arizona Daily Star, Cesare’s lawyer, John Munger said it was Cesare’s support for Tanner Bell against Pima County Supervisor Sharon Bronson that prompted the County’s retaliation. “There was no problem until after the 2012 election,” Munger told the Star.
The County hopes to deliver a death knell of sorts by stripping the remainder of Cesare’s land of its platting resulting in a tremendous loss of time and money.
Blackwell’s letter claimed that Cesare’s “misrepresentations” had harmed “the residents and accused Cesare of “acting in bad faith “by “not properly maintaining the assets of the neighborhood.” However, Cesare claims that the “County’s conclusions regarding Mr. Cesare’s conduct are essentially based on two false assertions: that Mr. Cesare is responsible for maintaining “the Star Valley trails,” and that “Cesare is responsible for the construction of an off-site road, Camino Verde. Neither of these assertions has any basis in fact.”
Cesare cites an internal memo Blackwell wrote County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry referencing a “request to the developer that we begin discussions regarding a draft development agreement.” Blackwell then wrote to Cesare on May 20, 013, stating “Pima County has committed to making this road improvement contingent upon the developer entering into an agreement addressing reimbursement mechanisms …” On June 21 , 2013 Blackwell wrote “regarding the structuring of an agreement (“Transportation Finance Plan”) for the financing of road improvements remaining at Star Valley.”
According to Cesare’s claim, “Pima County Supervisor Sharon Bronson wrote to the Star Valley homeowners on February 3, 2014, stating that advertisement for the construction of the Camino Verde extension will begin “once funding agreement is reached with the developer.”
Clearly and agreement had not been reached and according to the claim, a letter dated May 23, 2013 from the Pima County Department of Transportation to Cesare had a draft agreement attached.
The Notice of Claim filed in August 2014 reads:
“The County Administrator himself stated the County’s intent at a public meeting on May 4, 2013 as follows: the County will build the extension and “what we will then require is the developer to enter into a legally binding agreement with the County that says that when in fact this development does occur you’ve got to repay those funds to the County. This says two things: one, there is no agreement in place now, and, two, the County is only looking to be paid after additional development has occurred. The County Administrator also acknowledged that “yes, we do have the money” because “we have enough impact fees that can be in fact used and located to make these improvements.” The County has even included the construction of the Camino Verde extension in its plans for construction using developer impact fees.”
Thus, at the time of Ms. Black well’s letter referenced above there was a legitimate and ongoing negotiation and debate between Pima County and the developers regarding financial responsibility for the Camino Verde extension (as well as maintenance of the trail system) indeed, Supervisor Bronson had communicated several times with the Star Valley homeowners saying that she was very positive, and hopeful that these negotiations would be successful. In itself, these communications from Supervisor Bronson implied strongly that Mr. Cesare was acting reasonably and positively. In light of these facts, it was completely inaccurate and wrong for Ms. Blackwell to indiscriminately and irresponsibly tar Mr. Cesare’s name and character, to accuse him of illegal conduct, and then to publish these unfounded accusations to l,400 homeowners.
“Without any doubt, the statements wrongfully impugn, and were intended to impugn, Mr. Cesare’s and SVA’s professional reputation. Mr. Cesare (and SVA) is a property developer by trade and Ms. Blackwell’s statements charge him with being unable to practice his trade honestly, professionally and Iawfully, even though Supervisor Bronson had been saying that the County’s negotiations with Mr. Cesare were proceeding hopefully. Blackwell has accused Mr. Cesare of the worst sort of personal and professional traits, including lying, negligence, bad faith, breach of fiduciary duties, a d incompetence in the way he has developed and manages Star Valley. Such false allegations have damaged Mr. Cesare’s reputation and good name in the community. For example, as a result of Ms. Blackwell’s letter, members of the HOA wrote to each other that Mr. Cesare is a “coward,” and that he sends others to HOA meetings to do “his dirty work.” Ms. Blackwell’s false allegations have brought Mr. Cesare into disrepute, contempt, and ridicule, and have impeached his honesty, integrity, virtue, and reputation. This also has caused Mr. Cesare humiliation, and mental and emotional suffering.”
The County’s statements also constitute injurious falsehoods. The County has published disparaging falsehood s regarding Mr. Cesare’s business practices calculated to prevent others from dealing with him. Such falsehoods have resulted in pecuniary loss to Mr. Cesare.
Approximately half the project remains to be sold.
After receipt of Ms. Blackwell ‘s letter dated April 9, 2014, members of the HOA declared to each other that “we do need to start passing out flyers to future homebuyers regarding these issues,” indicating that, as a result of Ms. Blackwell ‘s letter , they planned to “slow sales” within the Star Valley development. This course of action was even expressly suggested to the Star Valley homeowners by the County Administrator! At the public meeting held on May 3, 2013, the County Administrator, in dealing with the issue of maintenance of the trails, and after (wrongfully) laying the responsibility on the HOA (and Mr. Cesare, mentioned by name), stated aloud “[S]ometimes the issue of publicity and adversity to sales causes the developers and the home builders to pay a lot more attention to homeowners that are in existing developments … I would suggest that as a good course of action.” Thus, the County’s unsubstantiated allegations deliberately incited current homeowners to interfere with future sales at Star Valley. The current homeowners have interfered and continue to interfere with such future sales as a consequence of Ms. Blackwell’s letter published to them on April 9, 2014, and . Huckleberry’s specific incitements on May 3, 2013. The County was fully aware of the consequences of publishing its falsehoods and incitements to about 1,400 homeowners. The County intended to cause such damage to Mr. Cesare and has, in fact caused damage, as further referenced throughout this letter.
On the political retribution issue: Supervisor Sharon Bronson’s competitor in the 2012 elections was Tanner Bell. Mr. Bell campaigned on the issue of Ms. Bronson’s neglect of her duties to build roads, including roads around the Star Valley development. We have very strong evidence that Ms. Bronson believes (wrongly) that Mr. Cesare’s son, Jeffrey Cesare, provided some information in that regard to Mr. Bell to use against Ms. Bronson. Further, Ms. Bronson as expressed extreme unhappiness with the fact that Jeffrey Cesare supported Republican Ally Miller for Supervisor against one of Ms. Bronson’s Democratic allies. Since that time, Ms. Bronson and the County have attempted to exact revenge on the Cesares, via the wrongful activities outlined in this letter.
Ms. Bronson’s acts constituting political retribution also constitute a separate cause of action and have violated Mr. Cesare’s civil rights.