A Hillsborough Circuit Court judge assessed a penalty stroke to a Pebble Creek homeowner this week in the debate over turning a closed golf course into a residential development.
Leslie Green, the most outspoken critic of remaking the shuttered Pebble Creek Golf Club into a 251-home development, is not protected by the state law prohibiting lawsuits intended to stymie dissent on publicly debated issues, Circuit Court Judge Christopher Nash ruled.
Golf course owner Bill Place of Ace Golf sued Green last year alleging defamation and interference with a business transaction, contending she conducted “a campaign of harassment and dissemination of blatant falsehoods” in social media posts, letters to developers, emails to residents and comments to media outlets.
Place’s suit blamed Green for two homebuilders, Pulte and KB Homes, walking away from residential development plans for the course, located east of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard in the New Tampa area of northern Hillsborough County.
Green sought to dismiss that lawsuit, saying it amounted to a strategic lawsuit against public participation. Known commonly by the acronym SLAPP, such suits are prohibited by state law.
“The lawsuit has one goal: to silence Leslie Green and anyone else who might speak out against Mr. Place’s attempt to sell and rezone the golf course, so he can walk away rich, leaving hundreds of homeowners to suffer the loss of green space and diminished property values in his wake,” Green’s group, Save Pebble Creek, said in a news release when it filed its motion to dismiss the suit.
Nash heard arguments in March and issued his ruling Tuesday denying Green’s motion.
The evidence indicates “this lawsuit is based on statements which are false, and which were made with malicious intent. False statements made with malicious intent are not afforded First Amendment protection,” Nash ruled.
One of Green’s contentions was that Place purposely ran the golf course into the ground to pave the way for its closure and redevelopment.
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The ruling means Place’s defamation lawsuit against Green can proceed.
“The court ruled to go forward with the case, but not the validity of the case or whether I had done anything wrong,” Green said in a statement. “We believed and still do that this case was brought on solely to silence me and others from speaking against the rezoning.”
Place, who purchased the course in 2005 in a $2.1 million transaction, shut it down July 31, 2021, saying he faced significant maintenance and repair bills at a club with just 73 members.
“This has never been about silencing opposition. It is about the law that does not permit malicious interference with a business or malicious attacks on a person’s character and integrity. The court agreed,” Place said via email.
Nash’s ruling is separate from the Hillsborough County Commission’s decision in July denying a rezoning application from GL Homes, which has a contract to purchase the 150-acre site. GL Homes is expected to appeal that commission ruling in Hillsborough County Circuit Court.