Nine citizens named as defendants in a lawsuit filed by Roseburg Forest Products earlier this year have fired back with a motion to dismiss the suit, alleging that it was filed in an effort to chill free speech rights.
On May 12, Roseburg filed a complaint against the City of Weed, the group Water for Citizens of Weed, and members of that group: Jim Gubetta, Bob Hall, Mary Jackson, Dave Pearce, Bruce Shoemaker, Ray Strack, Jim Taylor, Michael Yates, and Monica Zinda, as well as anyone “claiming any legal or equitable right, title, estate, lien, or interest in” water rights that have been in dispute between the company and the city for years.
The water rights in question cover 2.0 cubic feet per second from a group of springs and a creek known collectively as the Beaughan Waters. The City of Weed utilized the 2.0 cfs from the Beaughan Waters most recently through a 50 year lease that expired in 2016.
Roseburg administered the lease after purchasing assets from International Paper in 1982, and entered into a new lease agreement with the City of Weed in April of 2016. That 10 year lease allows the city to use up to 1.5 cfs, and raised the cost from $1 per year to $97,500, and requires that the city find an alternative source of water.
The new lease arrived after years of dispute over who actually owns the right to the 2.0 cfs from the Beaughan Waters – something which Roseburg asks the court to settle in its complaint. In addition, the company asks that the court find that none of the defendants have any interest in the water right.
In its complaint, Roseburg indicated that it was spurred to litigation after Water for Citizens of Weed – joined by the city – petitioned the Scott Valley and Shasta Valley Watermaster District to find that the water right belongs to the city.
The nine named defendants – represented by First Amendment Project Senior Counsel James Wheaton – filed a motion to strike Roseburg’s complaint, alleging that the suit is a “Strategic lawsuit against public participation” or SLAPP.
According to the motion, California has a statute designed to combat SLAPP lawsuits, and the defendants argue that that statute bars Roseburg from suing them for petitioning the SSWD on the water right issue.
The statute protects from litigation certain activities, such as written or oral statements made during a legislative, executive or judicial proceeding; written or oral statements made in connection with an issue under consideration by a legislative, judicial or executive body; and under similar circumstances.
The first prong of an anti-SLAPP motion is a determination of whether the defendants engaged in protected activities, the motion states, and the defendants argue that their activities were protected because they had petitioned an official body in connection with an issue in the public interest when they approached the SSWD.
The second prong requires that the plaintiffs show that they have a possibility of succeeding on the merit of their claims; in this case, Roseburg would have to show that it has a likelihood of prevailing on its claim that it is the sole holder of the 2.0 cfs water right.
The defendants argue that Roseburg cannot do so, highlighting a 1982 Division of Water Rights letter that they claim shows that International Paper, when selling its assets to Roseburg, had given the 2.0 cfs right to Weed.
In addition, the motion argues that the nine named defendants are improperly included in the suit because none of them have claimed that they have an interest in the Beaughan Waters, instead arguing that the right belongs with the city.
A hearing on the matter is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 26 at the Siskiyou County Superior Courthouse, but attorneys in a separate case related to the water right issue have filed a motion to consolidate the case with theirs.
The complaint in that matter alleges that the City of Weed improperly entered into the new water lease without the proper environmental review.
A hearing on that suit is scheduled for Aug. 24 at 8:30 a.m.