Lagoona Bay developer sues two private citizens over critical social media comments

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. — The developer behind an $800 million Huntersville project is suing two private citizens over critical social media comments.

Violet Clarke and Noelle Burton say Jake Palillo, the developer of the Lagoona Bay project, is trying to intimidate and bully them with these libel lawsuits.

“I’m not backing down,” resident Violet Clarke said. “He can send me 10 of these. I’m not backing down.”

“Everything I said was true and I still stand behind it,” Burton said.

Lagoona Bay is a 270-acre project proposed for Sam Furr, Westmoreland, Black Farms and McCord Roads. It would include a hotel, 250 single-family homes, plus dozens of apartments, townhomes and condos. Plans also call for a resort-style lagoon. The membership fee would be $10,000 with 1,500 memberships. The Huntersville Town Board will host a public hearing on the project Monday at the Huntersville Recreation Center.

Clarke started a Change.org petition against the project. It has more than 4,000 signatures.

“He picked the wrong two,” she said. “We are going all the way. He picked the wrong two to bully.”

The libel suits take aim at posts made on social media by the two women.

Clarke and Burton are opposed to the project but say everything they shared online is true and there was no actual malice behind their statements.

Palillo is accusing Burton of launching a “smear campaign” and said in the lawsuit that she is trying to “destroy his reputation in the community.”

The lawsuit states she made a comment on social media claiming he “is greedy and doesn’t follow through with any of his projects.”

Palillo also accuses Clarke of launching a “smear campaign.” He says she made posts that said in part “he’s not for the community at all. He’s for himself and his greedy family.”

“I stand behind everything 100 percent,” Burton said. “Nothing was malicious. He was just after me because I talked on social media.”

Palillo declined an interview but sent Eyewitness News Reporter Joe Bruno a statement.

“Social media is a place to exchange opinions, and express views,” he said. “Free speech is our right and social media is not a weapon to make false statements, tell lies or slander people.”

Burton and Clarke have hired attorneys and expect the case to be dismissed. Elon Law Professor Enrique Armijo says the court will be looking into whether they intentionally said false statements with reckless disregard for the truth. Armijo reviewed the lawsuit filed against Burton.

He says courts are careful to distinguish between opinion and verifiably false facts

“I think this is going to be pretty difficult for the plaintiff here, the developer, to show that these statements actually harm their reputation,” he said.

Palillo is seeking more than $25,000 in damages.

(WATCH: Residents concerned about proposed development’s impact on wildlife in south Charlotte)