AFTER FIGHTING lawsuit after lawsuit filed by developers irked by their decisions, the Old City Civic Association waved a white flag yesterday and announced it has disbanded its developments and liquor committees because it no longer could afford skyrocketing liability insurance.
"OCCA will continue its various community improvement and outreach activities, such as its semiannual tree planting, cleanup and 'hazmat' removal days, social events and tours of historical places," association President Ryan N. Berley wrote on the group's Facebook page. "While OCCA goes through a challenging transition, we look forward to working with our neighbors toward a cleaner, greener and more beautiful Old City."
Berley didn't return calls for comment yesterday.
Court records show the association has been sued twice in the past 13 months by businesses over liquor-license transfers. The group also has been fighting a lawsuit by Waterfront Renaissance Associates filed in 2007 after neighborhood opposition helped doom its World Trade Center of Philadelphia, a mixed-use complex planned on five acres on Columbus Boulevard.
Most civic associations carry liability insurance to protect themselves against such claims. But lawsuits drive up insurance premiums, making it tough for small, nonprofit, volunteer-run civic associations to pay.
Some deep-pocketed people so frequently sue to silence critics that there's a term for it: strategic lawsuit against public participation, or SLAPP suits.
"This is a national phenomenon, really a rather despicable, purposeful strategy for developers to use their economic power to shut up people who are just community-minded and have a different view about the effects of development," said David Kairys, a constitutional-law professor at Temple University.
Lawsuits' chilling effect on community involvement could have long-term effects on a neighborhood, one expert said.
"If they're feeling sort of hamstrung because of fears of litigation, that takes away their primary power, which is to shape the social and civic nature of the neighborhood and have some democratic input into how their neighborhood works and looks," said Bob Stokes, associate professor of public policy and urban planning at Drexel University.