The owner of the Shotwell Landfill in southeastern Wake County really, really wants Betty Brandt Williamson to shut up. In fact, David W. King Jr. so badly wants Williamson to stop complaining to county officials about his long-controversial dump that his lawyer, from one of North Carolina's most influential law firms, recently sent her a letter that insists, "This has to stop"—or else.
The April 10 letter, from Poyner Spruill partner Keith Johnson, was sent to Williamson, a landfill neighbor, via certified mail and copied to King, two state environmental regulators, and three Wake County environmental and planning officials. "While you certainly have the right to communicate with such authorities," Johnson wrote, "you do not have the legal right to continue to make false statements and to present false information to them or anyone else about Shotwell's operations or Mr. King. Your communication of false or misleading information is in fact actionable."
In legalese, "actionable" means Shotwell is claiming a basis to sue Williamson for voicing her concerns about the landfill to the local government. At least one other area landowner, who asked not to be named, also received a threatening letter from Poyner Spruill.
King, who bought the landfill in 2005, has maintained that he's made every effort to comply with regulations and to reach out to neighbors of the landfill, which was founded by a different owner in 2000. That's the same year that scenic nearby land near the intersection of Mial Plantation and Smithfield roads, with several buildings that date from the nineteenth century, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In the years since, subdivisions have dotted the countryside not far from the Johnston County line, and Shotwell has acquired a wealth of new neighbors. Also during those years, Shotwell has repeatedly approached the Wake County Board of Commissioners to request that its agreement with the county be amended to include more land and to accept more kinds of waste.
Williamson, along with dozens of neighbors, has addressed the county commission about at least two of those requests, in 2011 and 2016. In both cases, the panel denied Shotwell the chance to expand its coverage area, and on one of those occasions, the types of waste it can receive. Speakers at the public hearings reported smells arising from the dump, waste seepage into nearby creeks, traffic confronting big trucks on narrow Smithfield Road, and inadequate coverage by a berm designed to shield the landfill from view.
In addition, commissioners discovered in 2011 that Shotwell was separately seeking a state permit to accept industrial waste, after then-Shotwell attorney David York had told commissioners that he wasn't asking them for a change in the waste stream. (York said later he didn't intend to mislead the commissioners.) During a May 2, 2011, meeting, then-commissioner Joe Bryan referred to Williamson's efforts as a "David and Goliath" conflict.
Shotwell has received frequent visits from state regulators throughout its history, many prompted by reports from neighbors. Several years of state reports were summed up in a 2014 overview by the engineering firm Smith Gardner Inc.: "Beginning in 2011, Shotwell Landfill received warnings and 11 cited notices of violations to date." The report details 2011 and 2012 violations for receiving unacceptable waste, 2013 violations for site conditions, and a 2014 notice of violation for problems including seepage into a stormwater ditch.
A March complaint from Williamson, cited in the Poyner Spruill letter, concerned the presence of a dump truck at property King owns next to the landfill—raising the possibilities of unauthorized unloading at the facility and a zoning violation. The state investigated the complaints and found that, while the truck was indeed there, there was no basis for violations.
Williamson hired Raleigh lawyer Ed Gaskins after receiving the Poyner Spruill letter.
"Ms. Williamson will continue to report to the regulatory authorities suspected violations of the terms and conditions imposed on the operation of the landfill as appropriate to her civic duty as a nearby landowner and her right under the First Amendment," Gaskins writes in an email. "We have responded privately to the letter from counsel for the landfill to that effect."
In an interview, Gaskins makes the case that state and local regulators benefit from having citizens point out potential violations. Even if the person making a complaint submits information that doesn't pan out, that citizen is protected from litigation, he argues. "For someone who has legitimate interest in a topic, there is protection for that person even if what they think has happened is not accurate," Gaskins says.
Per Gaskins's advice, Williamson declined to comment.
Johnson also declined to comment or to make King available for an interview. "We'll let the letter speak for itself," Johnson said last week.
UNC-Chapel Hill law professor Victor B. Flatt, the codirector of UNC's Center for Climate, Energy, Environment, and Economics, reviewed Johnson's letter for the INDY. To Flatt, the letter is an example of a SLAPP, or a "strategic lawsuit against public participation." A term coined in the 1990s, SLAPP describes a means, typically used by larger businesses, of threatening people who question their operations in public forums. Often the threat of a lawsuit is enough to stop the speech when the citizen cannot afford legal representation against a company with deep pockets.
"Silencing citizen complaints and protest is the whole purpose," Flatt says. "The letter received by Ms. Williamson is the prototypical SLAPP suit."
The age-old practice of trying to intimidate people for speaking out has become so prevalent in recent decades that jurisdictions including California, Texas, and Washington, D.C., have strong anti-SLAPP laws, which create a higher bar for bringing suit in these kinds of case and can result in defendants recovering legal fees. North Carolina does not have an anti-SLAPP law.
"Generally speaking, this is a tactic that people use to get people to shut up and go away," says Raleigh lawyer Hugh Stevens, a First Amendment expert who has represented The News & Observer, the INDY, and other news organizations. "If [Williamson] was acting in good faith, she should be OK."
The Poyner Spruill letter maintains that Williamson's complaints to the state and county have put unnecessary strain on regulators who have had to respond to "false or misleading information."
A Wake County environmental manager, however, says that Williamson's communications have not been disruptive, because most landfill regulations fall under state law. Meanwhile, Jamie Kritzer, a spokesman for the state Division of Environmental Quality, says that Williamson's repeated complaints, while sometimes bearing fruit, have often repeated earlier contentions and have sometimes drawn resources away from other areas requiring attention. In the big picture, though, DEQ welcomes additional sets of eyes, or additional noses, to help regulators detect environmental problems.
"I want people to understand that, as regulators, we recognize the value of citizen involvement and citizens that are active in their community," Kritzer says. "We don't ever want to discourage anyone from bringing us a complaint. We just encourage them to bring us good, factual information to back it up."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Cease and Desist."