CHARLOTTE, NC (Michael Gordon/The Charlotte Observer) - The January slideshow during the planning board meeting of the Village of Marvin was supposed to be about time-and-temperature signs. So when a slide popped up on the screen showing gasoline prices, according to Ken Orndorff, everybody in the room laughed.
Mary Shkut, who was in charge of the presentation, apparently failed to see the joke.
According to court documents, she singled out Orndorff, a Charlotte real estate executive who was among those in the audience.
"What's your problem?" Shkut, the village's newly appointed interim top planner, asked him. "Seriously? Like seriously, I've had just about enough."
The confrontation escalated from there. What started as a disagreement about development has mushroomed into allegations of stalking, name-calling and wrongful arrest – all part of an embarrassing legal fight at odds with the carefully manicured image of one of North Carolina's most affluent communities.
For decades, developers and landowners across the Carolinas have clashed with local governments over policies to limit or influence growth. Millions of dollars and quality-of-life issues such as congestion, traffic and green space often hang in the balance.
But rarely do these debates turn as personal as Marvin's, which pits a key planner vs. a longtime developer whose company has helped shape the village's future.
Instead of debates over density, setbacks and traffic, Orndorff's lawsuit accuses Shkut of slander, defamation and malicious prosecution. The complaint also names the village, which Orndorff says condoned what he describes as the planner's harassment.
"People are entitled to have a debate over the use of public land and what sort of development should be allowed," said Orndorff's attorney, Jeremy Suggs of Charlotte.
"But in this case, a public official clearly crossed the line by defaming someone at a public meeting. What I think is most unfortunate is at first, all Ken Orndorff wanted was an apology."
This week, Shkut fired back with a lawsuit of her own. In it, she accuses Orndorff, Raley Miller and a subsidary of a three-year campaign of "regularly harassing, degrading and belittling Shkut ... to force her out of any involvement with Village of Marvin planning and zoning." In fact, Shkut claims that an onslaught of emails and misleading information led her twice to resign planning positions with the village.
Since its incorporation in 1994, Marvin and its influx of affluent newcomers have plotted their future several rungs up the socio-economic ladder from the rest of Union County, itself one of the fastest-growing areas in the state. Today, the village and its 6,800 residents have low taxes, fine schools and the state's highest median income. A Yahoo survey picked Marvin as North Carolina's best place to live – two years running.
On the village website, Shkut describes herself as an "active member" of the community since 2005. Prior to her current post as planner and village administrator, she was the longtime chairwoman and member of Marvin's planning board – harboring what she describes as "a passion for problem solving, policy and people."
Raley Miller's working relationship with the village appears to have been contentious for most of the last decade. In 2010, the company first approached Marvin about annexing several parcels it wanted to develop, according to Shkut's complaint. In both cases, the planning board – on which Shkut was a member – voted no.
Four years later, the company tried again. This time, Orndorff – the son-in-law of one of Raley Miller's partners – took over negotiation for Raley Miller plans at the edge of the village for restaurants, a grocery and a 14-screen movie theater.
That October, the Shkut-led planning board again voted against the project – several months after Orndorff publicly accused Shkut of spreading inaccurate information to torpedo the company's chances, part of a formal request to have her removed from any role in the zoning process.
Orndorff says he continued to attend village meetings to represent his company and clients.
Shkut's lawsuit offers a different perspective. She describes her adversary sitting in the back row of meetings with a baseball cap pulled low over his head, standing to videotape or photograph Shkut when she spoke. She says he regularly mocked her form the audience.
Last December, according to Orndorff's complaint, Shkut halted a planning board meeting to "publicly ridicule" Orndorff for "smirking."
That set the stage for the January showdown. After chiding Orndorff directly during the slide show, according to his lawsuit, Shkut turned to a planning board member.
"Sorry. My apologies, Tom," she said, referring again to Orndorff. "He essentially stalks me everywhere I go. My stalker."
Orndorff and his attorney demanded an apology. In a Jan. 26 letter, the lawsuit says, village leaders said he would not get one. Nor would they alter the meeting minutes to acknowledge that Orndorff was, in fact, not a stalker.
Four days later, the developer says he was sitting in on a village council meeting when a sheriff's deputy served him with a criminal summons – for stalking – that was sworn out by Shkut. Two months would pass before the Union County District Attorney's Office threw the charge out, the lawsuit says.
Now, the Charlotte developer – who says he is not a stalker – wants more than an apology. In return for what he describes as his public humiliation, Orndorff seeks damages is excess of $25,000.
In addition, he claims the village piled insult onto injury by rehiring Shkut as planner in August.
"What they have done is no different than putting a sign on the front door that Ken Orndorff is not welcome," Suggs, Orndorff's attorney, says. "The person he has to meet with is the person that publicly defamed him."
In her lawsuit, Shkut accuses her foils of abuse of civil process, unfair and deceptive practices, threatening her livelihood, conspiracy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
She also claims that, under state law, Orndorff and his companies' pattern of "conspiring to menace, mock, harass, torment and otherwise ridicule" meets the definition of a particular crime: