Riviera Beach becomes focus of national debate
 on government seizure of homes


By Stephen Deere
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Posted February 20 2006

RIVIERA BEACH  -  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 has?"

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 better jobs.

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 says.

Court decision
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 domain.

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 true.

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.

Blighted findings
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 study.

"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 eminent domain."

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 issue.

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 United States."

Stephen Deere can be reached at scdeere@sun-sentinel.com or 561-228-5506.