Riviera Beach master developer pulls offers to buy private land

RIVIERA BEACH A day after Gov. Jeb Bush questioned the legality of the city's contract with its master developer, Viking Inlet Harbor Properties said it was withdrawing 20 offers to buy private land for the city's $2.4 billion waterfront redevelopment.

The decision by Bob Healey, Viking's chairman, temporarily pulls the plug on the threat of using eminent domain to take land if owners refuse to sell.

 

In May, Mayor Michael Brown called a special meeting so the city and Viking could sign a contract to develop International Harbor Village, which will include restaurants, shops, condos, a hotel, a marina and an aquarium.

As part of the deal, the city agreed to use eminent domain on Viking's behalf one day before Bush signed a bill into law making such seizures illegal.

Bush now charges that the special meeting may have violated state Sunshine laws. Viking's contract may be invalid because the city failed to give proper public notice of the special meeting, the governor said.

Meanwhile, this latest salvo in the eminent domain fight leaves landowners in the 400-acre redevelopment area in limbo. Healey said Thursday that the company is willing to negotiate with property owners on a voluntary basis, but there is no guarantee that subsequent deals will match the initial offer.

"We're not going to pay a fortune for people's property," Healey said.

Property owners should begin receiving the now-withdrawn offers in the mail today.

Healey stressed that withdrawing the offers doesn't mean the developer is abandoning the project or the future possible use of eminent domain, which is the taking of private property by a government for public use; the owner is paid fair market value.

In the past month, Bush, state lawmakers, the city and Healey have battled over whether Riviera Beach still has the legal right to use eminent domain. The war of words heated up when Viking and city officials realized their lobbying efforts failed to exempt Riviera Beach from the new law.

Since then, Healey said his company, known worldwide for building luxury sport yachts, has taken a beating for the growing perception that Viking was kicking residents out of their homes.

"We're now the villains," Healey said rhetorically. "I don't want people to think we're the bad guys."

Brown cautioned Healey not to panic regarding the governor's claims. The city will stay the course because the law is on Riviera Beach's side, he said.

"We don't want to give the impression that Viking is intimidated by the governor's words," Brown said after learning of Healey's decision. "We cannot accept the fact that some people have concluded that our community should languish in poverty."

Healey made his decision public just hours after House Speaker Allan Bense joined Bush in questioning the legality of the city's contract with Viking.

Bush said Wednesday that city residents were not given sufficient notice of the special meeting May 10, when the city council approved the contract. That may have been a violation of the state's Government in the Sunshine laws, which require government agencies to give "reasonable notice" of a public meeting.

Because of that, Bush argued, the contact approved at the meeting may be invalid. He asked the state Attorney General's Office to investigate.

On Thursday, Bense said he asked his general counsel's office to do the same and to figure out a way to force the city to comply with the eminent domain law passed this year.

"Hopefully between the (attorney general's) office and the governor's office and our legal counsel, maybe there's a way we can keep them from taking their people's property," Bense said.

Initially, Viking sent letters offering to buy land from 23 property owners covering 39 parcels. Each letter mentions that the city's community redevelopment agency needs the land for redevelopment and alludes to eminent domain.

Within days of the May 12 letters, the developer withdrew three offers, totaling nine parcels, after landowners didn't want to sell or wanted more money than Viking was willing to pay.

So far, Viking has bought eight pieces of land from two landowners, one of whom is Nader Salour, president of Abacoa Development Co. and a principal in Cypress Realty. Cypress Realty was runner-up to Viking in the bid to become Riviera Beach's master developer.

City officials, meanwhile, are upset over the backlash toward their redevelopment efforts, which they perceive as election-year politics trumping a proposal that state officials had embraced for years.

City Manager Bill Wilkins said Bush has known about the project, including the component that required relocating more than 1,000 residents through eminent domain proceedings, since as early as 2000.

That's when city officials joined Bush on a trade mission to Brazil to promote International Harbor Village. They took a similar trip with Bush in 2001 to Argentina and Chile, where Wilkins said Bush and the U.S. Department of Commerce helped set up meetings with developers, restaurant owners and bankers to encourage investment in the project.

"It's not as though the city just overnight decided to sneak some project through. We've been working for a number of years on this," Wilkins said.

Wilkins said the reason for the sudden switch is legislators trying to cash in on a popular issue with voters: stopping the use of eminent domain in Florida.

"Clearly, to be on the wrong side of this issue perhaps endangers the electability for these public officials," he said.

But Bush, who will end his second term as governor in January, scoffed at the accusation.

"I'm a supporter of redevelopment, sure. I wish (Brown) well. I hope that his efforts and vision for Riviera Beach are completed," Bush said Thursday. "I just don't believe it should be completed using a tool allowing for the taking of private property through the police powers of government for a private use."

Bush initially was upset over reports that city officials notified residents only by placing a notice on the doors of the city council chambers 24 hours before the meeting. But Thursday, city spokeswoman Rose Anne Brown said they also placed notices on the entrance to city hall, on a big board outside the building and in all elevators in the building.

Brown said that was the standard, if not written, notification for special meetings.

Bense said that was not nearly enough.

"I guess the people of that area are supposed to drive by city hall every day," Bense said. "When you're going to be taking people's property, you've got to do more than just that. I think there's a higher burden than that."

Bush agreed.

"A judge will decide that," he said.