When Stuart Pohost posted a handmade sign warning of spiraling crime in his Silver Spring neighborhood, the 33-year-old photographer never imagined that he and some of his neighbors would be sued for $8 million.
The 2-foot sign, with letters scrawled in a black marking pen, said: "Resident Warning. Our community is experiencing a high rate of auto break ins and burglaries. Please lock and secure your home and cars."
But a month after this sign and about a dozen more like it went up in the Spring Oak Estates neighborhood between New Hampshire Avenue and Rte. 29, Pohost and his town house association were each sued for $4 million by the subdivision's builder, Ryan Homes Inc.
"I feel as if I was stabbed," said Pohost. "I thought I was helping the community. I thought what I did was right."
Ryan Homes, in a lawsuit filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court, alleges that the town house association's activities to publicize crime have hurt home sales at the three-year-old development by causing real estate contracts to be broken and purchases of town houses to be canceled.
Ryan executives declined to comment on the lawsuit while it is in the courts, and the firm's attorney did not return phone calls. But the Pittsburgh-based company said in court papers that it "suffered general damages both due to the emotional distress of its agents and sales representatives" and the "harm to its corporate reputation."
The controversy between Ryan and Spring Oak residents began in January when the Oak Springs Townhouse Association met with Ryan Homes Vice President Lawrence Lauffer to discuss concerns about an increasingly serious crime problem in the neighborhood, area residents said.
The cause of the crime, according to Spring Oak residents, many of whom are young professionals, is an adjacent subsidized, low-income public housing development called Great Hope Homes.
But a representative of Great Hope Homes, which was constructed about 14 years ago, said she did not know the cause of the crime and added that residents of the low-income project have been victims of break-ins too. The woman, who wished to remain anonymous, said her community wanted to help curb crime in the area and would join Spring Oak residents in a neighborhood watch program.
The town house owners said they suggested to Ryan that erecting an eight-foot chain-link fence that would separate their neighborhood from the public housing project off Good Hope Road could cut down on crime. "People were complaining that strangers were coming through the woods behind their town homes and into our neighborhood," said Pohost. "One woman complained that someone came in her back yard and threw rocks at her young daughter."
After meeting with the Ryan official, Spring Oak residents began posting signs warning owners and would-be town house purchasers of the alleged crime and violent activity in the community, according to court papers filed by Ryan. But the controversial signs didn't stay up long, Spring Oak residents say. "Ryan employes kept stealing our signs," said resident Sam Hankin. "The day we would put them up they would rip them down, put them in their trucks and drive away."
Ryan also charges that in March, numerous association members, including Pohost, stood outside of model town houses handing out leaflets to prospective Ryan buyers alleging an increase in criminal activity in the area.
As a result of what Ryan says was "a malicious scheme" by the town house association to get the company's cooperation in building the chain-link fence, numerous real estate contracts at the Spring Oak project were broken and "numerous and valuable prospective purchases of Ryan Homes town houses" were canceled. About 25 town houses in the community have not been sold, according to Pohost.
Ryan's lawsuit also charges that under Maryland law the Spring Oak residents' statements naming the adjacent public housing community as a possible source of crime constitutes blockbusting. Blockbusting is commonly understood to mean inducing homeowners to sell properties quickly because they fear that minority residents in the neighborhood will devalue their homes. Ryan is seeking $1 million in compensatory and $3 million in punitive damages each from Pohost and the association.