A neighborhood dispute over a Church Hill coffee shop’s request for a beer and wine license has spilled over into a $3.35 million lawsuit.
The owner of Captain Buzzy’s Beanery, Bob Buffington, has filed suit in Richmond Circuit Court, alleging that a handful of residents near his business “hijacked” the Church Hill Association. Buffington’s complaint says the residents engaged in conspiracy and “defamation, misrepresentation [and] unethical conduct” in opposing his application with the city to keep his shop open an hour later and serve beer and wine.
City Council denied Buffington’s request in late October following a heated public hearing and a high-pitched television attack ad that urged residents to “stop the coffee shop from getting buzzed or this could be your neighborhood next.” Opponents worried approval would change the character of the neighborhood.
Buffington remained relatively quiet through the debate, making an emotional plea for approval at City Council. But he doesn’t pull any punches in the lawsuit he filed Monday, which seeks $350,000 in punitive damages and $3 million in compensation.
The suit alleges secret association meetings, misrepresentations to city planners and an assault on Buffington by an opponent wielding a flower pot.
The suit names four neighborhood residents as defendants: John Whitworth, Kimberly Chen, Karen Jones and Amy Beem.
Buffington alleges that after the neighborhood association voted to support his permit, Whitworth rallied 15 residents to a Planning Commission meeting and “misrepresented that he was speaking on behalf of the Association and told them the letter of support was sent prematurely and asked for delay so they could reconsider.” The suit also says Whitworth didn’t tell the organization he appeared at the meeting.
The lawsuit alleges that Beem has a “personal vendetta” against Buffington, stating that she joined the association solely to oppose his permit application and sent a false email to its president saying that all 25 houses surrounding the coffee shop opposed the permit. Beem was the voice in the attack ad, Buffington charges, and used the neighborhood association’s logo without authorization.
The lawsuit also charges that Jones went against association rules by helping to force a vote to reconsider support for Buffington’s permit. The resulting conflict, Buffington alleges, led to the resignation of the association’s president, Karen Misbach, and seven other board members. The suit alleges that Beem told Misbach, “If you’re not with us, get out of the way.”
Buffington also alleges that a flowerpot was thrown at him by Chen, who was scheduled to appear in district court Tuesday to answer to a misdemeanor assault charge. (Update: A judge found Chen guilty and ordered her to pay a $50 fine.) The suit charges that Chen held a grudge against Buffington because “among other things, she does not believe Buffington grieved enough when his wife died of cancer in December 2011.”
The suit also names the Church Hill Association, Chen’s design company and the 2300 Club, a private club in Church Hill where the suit says Whitworth serves as board member and treasurer. (Bob Ulrich, the president of the club, tells Style Whitworth is a member but hasn't served on the board or as treasurer for at least two years.)
When informed by Style Weekly that the suit had been filed, Whitworth called it “unbelievable.” He declined further comment because he said he hasn’t seen it. Efforts to reach Chen, Beem and Jones were unsuccessful on Monday. The lawyer representing Buffington, Hayden Fisher, says the defendants have 21 days to file a response.
“To me it’s just an example of personal interests and egos of a small group of people trumping process,” Fisher says. “It’s a personal group of people who hadn’t even been paying dues were able to lasso the organization and mislead City Council. [Buffington] only wanted to stay open an extra hour and sell beer and wine.”
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that the 2300 Club's president says Whitworth no longer serves on the board or as treasurer as stated in the above lawsuit.