TWO WEEKS after disbanding its lawsuit-luring liquor and developments committees, the Old City Civic Association threw in the towel altogether, voting last week to dissolve because its legal problems have made liability insurance unaffordable.
With no formal group championing citizens' concerns, some see the surrender as a victory for deep-pocketed developers and entrepreneurs who have long battled the association's efforts to preserve the historic 'hood.
"On the one hand, there will be folks who see this as a benefit for unbridled development and expansion of business," said Ryan Berley, who was the 40-year-old group's president. "But there's a tremendous void now in Old City for residents and business owners, in terms of having a voice in the public civic process related to zoning, developments and liquor-licensing issues."
Berley and other OCCA members have urged Councilman Mark Squilla and other city leaders to do more to protect civic groups from involvement-squashing litigation.
That could include indemnifying civic groups from lawsuits, arranging for group liability insurance to make it more affordable, or allowing civic groups to use the city's law department to handle their legal problems, said Joe Schiavo, a longtime OCCA member who chaired the group's liquor committee.
Anne Kelly, Squilla's chief of staff, said city risk-management officials are mulling the proposals.
State lawmakers also should tighten restrictions against strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPP lawsuits, as OCCA members have characterized the complaints filed against them, Schiavo and Berley added.
Court records show that 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.
Legal costs have mounted in other ways, too.
"In some cases, it didn't even come to a lawsuit; one warning letter from an attorney cost our insurer $5,000 in legal fees," Berley said. "In the other cases, the suits were either voluntarily withdrawn by the plaintiff or discounted by the court. So, it seems as if these suits or legal actions were intended as a threat, rather than something actually legitimate. Nothing ever held up in court."