Residents feel safer about land seizure

By Sarah Stover
Staff writer
Posted: 2006 Nov 24 - 01:11

SINGER ISLAND - The message that 69 percent of Florida voters sent to the government when they voted in favor of amendment 8 on Nov. 7 could be summed up this way: "Hell no, we won't go."

The amendment to the state's constitution prohibits the government from transferring private property taken by eminent domain to a person or developer. It flies in the face of the Supreme Court ruling Kelo v. New London where the court said that Susan Kelo's property in New London, Conn., could be taken and turned over to developers to improve the town's economy.

The ruling solidified that the government can take property by eminent domain for the use of common good, such as schools or public roads. But Florida voters just said no.

"The framers of the U.S. Constitution foresaw the need for balance and fairness," said Bob Nevins, a Singer Island resident.

"Taking property for economic development, giving or selling the property to private entities for a profit is a clear abuse of power."

The Kelo decision empowered people to take action, especially those living in areas where major redevelopment is planned, such as Riviera Beach.

"Sixty-nine percent is an overwhelming percentage of the populace, which gives a real sense that the people do not want eminent domain used. People vote for things they feel strongly about, especially if it's going to affect them," said Singer Island resident Joanna Nevins.

"I was thrilled to see that the amendment passed, although I did expect it to, as no one wants their property taken away by the government to go to some other person," said Martha Babson, a Riviera Beach resident.

"We are all thrilled that Florida went from one of the very worst states about eminent domain to one of the very most protected."

Ms. Babson sold her house to developer Wayne Huizenga, Jr., before he withdrew his other offers for property in the city. She has remained active in fighting for residents' property rights in Riviera Beach.

Riviera Beach residents have been unnerved by the idea of eminent domain, which was to be used as a last resort in the city's redevelopment efforts.

When Gov. Jeb Bush passed legislation in May that strengthened restrictions on eminent domain, Riviera Beach residents did not breathe any easier. City councilors inked a deal with Viking Inlet Harbor Properties, master developer of the redevelopment project, to allow the use of eminent domain to complete the project the day before the legislation passed.

Mayor Michael Brown felt the city was exempt from the new legislation.

Arguments over whether enough public notice was given for the meeting when the agreement was signed followed. Lawsuits asking for a declaratory statement of the residents' rights vs. the city's rights ensued.

Decisions on whether the city is "grandfathered in" under the old law are still waiting to be heard. However, the Riviera Beach City Council unanimously passed a resolution stating that the city intends to use the power of eminent domain only as state law allows on Nov. 15. Mayor Brown, who cannot vote on council matters, wanted to wait on a decision about where the city's rights stood before passing the resolution.

"Why would this city want to give up what the Supreme Court said we could use?" he asked.

"I want (residents) to understand that we don't even need to pass this legislation, but we're doing it to put as many of (them) at ease as possible," said Councilwoman Liz Wade.

Some residents already feel safer since the amendment passed.

"I'm all for the eminent domain protection. For the government to take a piece of property and have in mind giving it to people to build condominiums on it, that's reprehensible," said Mrs. Nevins.

Others do not think the amendment will stop unconstitutional uses of eminent domain.

"The passage (of amendment 8) will have a negligible effect on redevelopment. Economic reality in our free enterprise system will prevail," said Mr. Nevins.

Thirty-one percent of voters opted against the amendment. "I think people didn't understand it or maybe they're developers," said Mrs. Nevins.

"Because of the wording of the amendment, it seemed confusing to some folks, who I am sure, voted no against eminent domain, not realizing that it was a yes question.

"That's why the percentages were lower than expected. Not that 31 percent of the voters wanted eminent domain, but they misunderstood the question," said Ms. Babson.

"I suspect that most of the 31 percent no votes were uninformed or uncaring voters. The salient point is that an overwhelming majority of voters voted for it, not that a small minority voted against it," said Mr. Nevins.

But the amendment only offers limited protection. It allows for exceptions given by three-fifths of both houses of the Legislature.