Riviera Beach becomes focus of
on government seizure of homes
By Stephen Deere
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Posted February 20 2006
- At the epicenter of a national debate over property rights,
Mayor Michael Brown walks along a sad-looking sidewalk near the corner
of Avenue F and 13th Street explaining Riviera Beach's efforts to
radically transform itself.
He gestures to empty beer bottles on the sidewalk, boarded-up houses, a
burned-out shack and then, finally, to what appears to be a mother and
father with their son. The trio walk along an unpaved alley casting
brief glances at the large man in the suit.
"See that little boy?" Brown says. "What type of future do you think he
For the mayor, the boy is a fortuitous image, a symbol. The boy is the
reason the city may use eminent domain to force residents from their
homes. The boy is why neighborhoods must be demolished to re-route U.S.
1 and why a major yacht-building complex needs to be constructed. More
economic development means a greater tax base, better city services and
A better future for the boy in the alley.
Twenty years from now, Brown says, people will talk about what this
predominantly black, blue-collar community of about 32,500 people
accomplished, how it lifted itself from economic deprivation.
But as it stands, Riviera Beach is not seen in such a positive light
nationally. From Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, television programs
and newspapers have reported that this municipality wants to displace
more than 5,100 of its residents to build, among other things, hotels,
condos, marinas and shops.
After years of false starts, the city's Community Redevelopment Agency
finally has the dollars to back its plan. In the fall, the CRA board
selected a master developer that promised to infuse the CRA with
millions of dollars.
Opponents of the plan call it legalized theft, the largest potential
eminent domain case in decades.
What right does the city have to seize someone's home and hand it over
to a developer?
Recently, state Rep. Everett S. Rice, R-Treasure Island, sat in one
homeowner's living room, touting a state constitutional amendment that
would provide an answer: None.
"Condemnation for condominiums is exactly what they are doing," Rice
Since June, when the Supreme Court ruled in Kelo vs. New London that a
Connecticut city could demolish residents' homes so a private developer
could build a riverfront hotel, health club and offices, states and
municipalities across the country have been grappling with eminent
Once used primarily for necessary government projects, such as roads,
hospitals and schools, governments have expanded its use to include
projects that will bolster their tax rolls.
Although the court's decision may have further emboldened some
governments, public outcry has prompted legislators all over the nation
to consider restrictions on the seizure of private property.
In Florida, the Legislature has established the Select Committee to
Protect Private Property Rights to study the issue and make
recommendations during the upcoming legislative session.
Rice thinks legislators will redefine the requirements for taking
private land. Under the law, establishing a CRA requires a study finding
an area blighted. The criteria for blight are so vague that any
neighborhood could qualify, Rice said.
"Under the statute, there is not a single parcel of land in Florida that
would not meet the criteria for blight," he said.
But changing the law is not enough, he said. Rice hopes legislators will
put a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot in November. The
amendment would prohibit the seizure of private property for economic
development, meaning that eminent domain could only be used for such
projects as roads, schools and jails.
The idea is nothing new, he said.
"It really maintains the status quo of what we thought the constitution
meant," he said.
The CRA has yet to begin condemnation proceedings against any of its
residents, and Rice thinks that if voters approve his proposal, any
property a judge hasn't yet ruled could be taken would be protected.
Help for the displaced
Technically, about 5,100 people in Riviera Beach are under the threat of
eminent domain. Merely living within the CRA's boundaries puts
residents' homes in jeopardy. A plan from Viking Inlet Harbor Properties
LLC, the CRA's master developer, spares some neighborhoods and says the
CRA need only acquire 283 owner-occupied homes.
CRA opponents note the number doesn't include renters. Floyd Johnson,
the agency's executive director, acknowledged that there is no estimate
for the number of landlord-owned properties to be acquired.
City leaders have promised that displaced residents will have a chance
to live in the new development.
Brown said residents whose homes are worth $80,000 would be placed in
homes worth $400,000.
"You're going to have some taxes," Brown said. "But you are going to
have $320,000 in equity."
But Brown acknowledged some scenarios need more thought. What about the
elderly woman who paid off her home years ago and lives off Social
Security? How would she afford taxes on a $400,000 home?
Brown doesn't have an answer, but says the situation will be addressed.
Some doubt the city will use eminent domain at all. Elizabeth "Liz"
Wade, the CRA's chairwoman, said developers' offers and the city's
relocation package will entice residents. So far, it seems that may be
During the past few weeks, some of the CRA's most vocal critics accepted
offers to sell their homes to Wayne Huizenga Jr., who wants to build
megayachts on a tract of land bordering the Intracoastal.
Al and Jacquie Loriol, who have been fixtures of criticism at CRA
meetings, have lived in their 848-square foot home within view of the
city's waterfront on East 21st Street for 31 years. They wanted to spend
the rest of their lives there, they said.
Now because of an offer from Huizenga they are moving to Jupiter Farms.
Jacquie Loriol declined to discuss the terms of the deal, but said she
had grown tired of living under the threat of eminent domain for the
past six years. Repairs on the house have been neglected, and city
meetings have eaten away valuable time, she said.
"You don't do a lot of the things that you should be doing," she said.
Sitting in her aqua-colored house, Martha Babson angrily points to the
city's blight study, which allowed the CRA to expand its boundaries.
"They lied," she says. The 2001 document examined roughly 2,040
structures, finding that more than 45 percent were substandard.
Babson and others drove the streets inspecting each property. They found
homes on many parcels listed as vacant. Lots that supposedly had
substandard housing were vacant. They drafted a document refuting the
city's study hoping it would provide the basis for a legal challenge in
an eminent domain case.
But Babson, who lives down the street from the Loriols, probably will
never have to use the document in court. She, too, accepted an offer
from Huizenga, agreeing to sell her two-bedroom home for more than three
times its appraised value of $202,454.
Brown dismissed Babson's and others criticism of the city's blight
"The fact is that no one can realistically question the fact that the
city of Riviera Beach is blighted," he said.
He notes that census figures show that among Palm Beach County's coastal
communities Riviera Beach is the poorest.
The same afternoon he spotted the boy in the alley, the mayor drove
through a vast mobile home park, past homes so deteriorated they seemed
they could implode at any moment. He pointed to a makeshift tent made up
of plywood and a tarp in a vacant lot.
"People are trapped in here with nowhere to go," he said. "It's
ultimately our responsibility to take care of them."
His opponents don't necessarily disagree.
"We are not against redevelopment," said David Corie. "We are against
He and his wife, Rene, live a few yards away from the waterfront in a
clean neighborhood with manicured lawns. A few months ago Fox News did a
series of live broadcasts from their backyard on the eminent domain
Rene Corie still remembers the first time she saw CRA documents years
ago. There was her home right among those slated for acquisition.
One thought kept going through her mind: "This couldn't happen in the
Stephen Deere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or