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DEVELOPERS SEEK TO ADD NORTON TO SUIT; AMHERST ACTIVIST IS TARGETED FOR INCLUSION IN DEFAMATION PROCEEDINGS

An Amherst activist is the latest target in an $11 million defamation suit filed by two developers of a proposed 288-acre real estate development in Amherst.

Attorneys Wednesday confirmed that State Supreme Court Justice Penny M. Wolfgang will be asked July 19 to add attorney Debra A. Norton to the roster of defendants in the suit, which was filed last October by DRT Construction Co. and Cimato Brothers Inc.

Charles C. Swanekamp, attorney for the developers, said Ms. Norton, former president of the Mapleleaf Homeowners Association, is "the motivating force" behind a libelous publicity campaign in which project opponents recently distributed a slinger depicting Hitler bulldozing a deer.

The slinger was "uncalled for and most certainly in bad taste" and is "the most libelous" piece of literature distributed so far by the homeowners group, Swanekamp said.

DRT and Cimato Brothers filed suit in October charging the homeowners group and its current president, Andrew Lenkei, with defaming the developers. Lenkei currently is a Democratic-endorsed candidate for the Amherst Town Board, which must approve the project.

Since 1988, the two businesses have been involved in a proposed 288-acre development including more than 400 one-family homes, 300 multifamily units and commercial space and possibly a 160-bed nursing home. The site is bounded by Maple, Ayer, Klein and Transit roads.

The Amherst Town Board is expected to conduct hearings on the project later this year.

Swanekamp said state laws and court rules prevent the developers from naming Ms. Norton as a defendant without court approval. The proceedings were randomly assigned to Justice Wolfgang, court officials said.

Ms. Norton, who was an unsuccessful candidate for the Amherst Town Board candidate last year, said the lawsuit "is designed to have a chilling effect" on efforts to stop the project. Opponents said they are concerned over the safety of some of the development, which is located over old gypsum mines.

"This is a flagrant attempt to scare people from expressing the views the environmental laws were passed to encourage," Ms. Norton said.

Richard L. Woll, Lenkei's attorney, said Justice Wolfgang will be asked to dismiss the $11 million suit. "The law protects a person's right to express opinions, especially on issues of public concern," Woll said.

Slingers distributed by the homeowners' group are protected under constitutional free speech provisions, Woll said.

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