Fears fail to ease over loss of land

RIVIERA BEACH If city council members thought they would relieve residents' fear of losing their land by not using eminent domain in the $2.4 billion waterfront redevelopment, they were wrong.

So says Bert Gall, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, who said the council's unanimous vote Wednesday night to remove the use of eminent domain in its deal with master developer Viking Inlet Harbor Properties is "meaningless."

"I wish we were celebrating today because the city council had done the right thing," said Gall, whose Virginia-based group represents city resident Princess Wells and business owners Michael and Nora Mahoney. "What they did doesn't accomplish anything."

On Wednesday night, the council approved a resolution reaffirming their intent to abide by Florida's new eminent domain law. In May, Gov. Jeb Bush signed the law, which strips governments' right to take private land and give it to developers for economic purposes.

On May 10, a day before Bush signed the law, the city entered into an agreement with Viking to develop 400 acres of mostly blight along the Intercoastal Waterway. A condition of the deal, which was an attempt to beat Bush's signing of the law, called for the council, sitting as the community redevelopment agency, to use eminent domain on behalf of Viking.

The agreement with Viking has prompted three lawsuits from residents who contend the city's deal with the master developer violates state law. The council had hoped that approving the resolution would lead to settling the lawsuits.

Among the plaintiffs is Fane Lozman, a newcomer to the city who lives on a houseboat at the city marina. Lozman was handcuffed and arrested during Wednesday night's meeting after continuing to speak at the podium when Councilwoman Liz Wade asked him to stop.

Lozman was speaking about the arrests of former County Commissioner Tony Masilotti and former West Palm Beach Commissioner Ray Liberti, and Wade didn't want to hear his comments. Lozman was escorted from city hall and placed in a holding cell at the police department.

He has been charged with disorderly conduct and trespassing. Lozman said Wade violated his First Amendment right to free speech and plans to fight his arrest in court.

"There was just this frenzy to get me out of there as soon as possible," Lozman said Thursday after his release.

Lozman, along with Virginia Merchant, owner of gift shop Sea Shell City, sued Riviera Beach in June. Their lawsuit alleges that city officials violated Florida's Sunshine Law in reaching the agreement with Viking.

Since then, however, the Viking deal has stalled. Last month, City Attorney Pamala Ryan brought to the council the resolution, which states among other things that the city "shall not use eminent domain in violation of the new legislation."

But Gall, whose legal advocacy organization was part of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that prompted states, including Florida, to limit eminent domain powers, said the resolution doesn't go far enough and won't produce any settlement offers. The wording in the resolution doesn't make the council legally bound to keep its position on eminent domain, Gall said.

"They could pass a new resolution six months from now," Gall said. "What they really needed to do was to remove the threat of eminent domain by saying we won't reserve the right to use eminent domain in the future."

That's a right Mayor Michael Brown wanted to make sure the council preserved. Brown, an eminent domain attorney, believes that a court could either grandfather in Riviera Beach's plan or a judge might strike down Florida's new law.

Ryan reassured Brown and the council that by approving the resolution the city would not lose its right to use eminent domain in the future if the law ever changed.