31st January
Riviera Beach:
Theresa Moxey Ingraham


Land Acquisition & Our Bahamian Cousins

An interesting newspaper article caught my eye last week and even though it dealt with matters of
concern to a tiny South Florida community, I couldn’t help but relate it to some present challenges
facing us in our own little corner of the Americas.

Riviera Beach, a little town in Palm Beach County, dates its existence to a time long before Columbus
(with archaeological artifacts to prove it) and by several ancient names, figures among those Florida
wetlands and seashore areas settled by various Native American tribes, including the Seminoles.

Most writers and journalists agree that from about the middle of the nineteenth century and well into
the early years of the last century, Riviera, as it came to be called, was settled largely by Bahamian
fishermen who plied the surrounding Atlantic Ocean waters and at first, only stayed in Lake Worth (as
it was then called) for short periods and returned to The Bahamas to live out the non-fishing periods
of the year.

Eventually, many of these fishermen settled in Lake Worth and brought their families and their customs
to this tiny community which was just around the corner from what was developing as the luxury
enclave known as Palm Beach and its off-shoot known as West Palm Beach.

But Lake Worth or Riviera, was no home of the rich and famous. It was a sturdy, blue collar
community of fishermen and labourers perched on the shores of the Atlantic with no illusions of
grandeur, and truthfully, of little interest to the rest of the world. There were sporadic attempts to
create a tourist and leisure industry in the area, but those efforts did not really reap spectacular results.
One writer described it as a "rather sleepy little town supported mainly by commercial fishermen and
tourism."

A 1930 Federal Writers Project Guide commented that "Residents of West Palm Beach looked upon
Riviera as a backward community and referred to it as ‘Conch Town.’" The town was growing at its
own steady pace, and by many accounts, it appears as if the black and white citizens coexisted in
relative harmony. Records, newspaper articles and publications from the early years bear names like
Moree, Griffin, Pinder, Knowles and Cunningham, evidence of a background which had some roots
in the Bahamian chain of islands which was such a close neighbour.

Another writer from the Federal Writers Project, describing the town in the early decades of the last
century states: "Here live a colony of Conchs, so named for the variety of shell fish they eat … The
men are fishermen; the women and children weave native palmetto into baskets, rugs, purses and
headbands and fashion fish scales into trinkets, delicate ornaments and artificial flowers for sale to
tourists."

It all sounds so familiar doesn’t it? The quiet, sleepy little island community with hardworking
fishermen, industrious women and an existence based on products from the sea and the soil for
sustenance and currency. These people own the land they live on and it has been in their families for
generations.

The fact that they just happen to own waterfront land in one of the few remaining unspoiled,
un-developed and relatively pristine areas in South Florida is also a point of great familiarity for us.
Add an ambivalent citizenry, a zealous city government and eager investors, and Riviera can be just
about any small community in our Family Islands identified to host one of the present government’s
much-touted "anchor" projects.

Think Guana Cay in the Abacos, Bimini Bay in the Biminis, the latest projected resort development in
Cat Island, the proposals for Mayaguana and Rum Cay. I could offer you an extended list of
proposed resort developments, which are being presented as anchor projects (all of them high-end
luxury resorts), geared towards providing large-scale employment, spin-off infrastructural upgrades
and eventual social mobility for locals.

Riviera Beach has been identified as perhaps a natural extension of Palm Beach and West Palm
Beach, and a multi-billion dollar waterfront development project has been planned. City Mayor,
Michael Brown and many of his government colleagues see this project as a necessary shot in the arm
for a town which has slumped into high crime, poverty and unemployment. They believe that valuable
waterfront land s the greatest bargaining chip available and that it should be used to finance a better
future for the area.

There is the tricky situation of land ownership, however. The majority of the waterfront land in
question is presently the home of thousands of Riviera Beach residents, poor, working class folk, and
not all of them are thrilled about selling their land to a huge conglomerate for the purpose of building
another playground for rich people. In actual fact, some residents have banded together to fight City
Hall and the Federal Government to the bitter end.

The real fight centers around a concept called "eminent domain," whereby, government can force a
landowner to sell his property for public use. It is much like our legal concept of government
"acquiring" private land (and providing at least market value compensation to the landowner) for
stated public purposes.

In and of itself, the idea of government acquiring certain lands is not a bad one. Think roads and
highways, national parks, land for schools, hospitals and the like, and you can appreciate the value of
a legal concept which gives government the authority to purchase land from reluctant landholders for
the overall good of a country or community.

What’s scary about the Riviera Beach deal however, is a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling over a
land dispute in Connecticut where eminent domain was extended to allow a city in that state to force
private landowners to sell their land for private redevelopment. The argument put forward by the city
was that in the general scheme of things, the sale of the land to a private entity cleared the way for
necessary economic upgrades to the entire city and that the greater good was being served.

With all this in mind, militant residents in Riviera Beach are gearing up for a hell of a long battle, not
only with city officials, but also with fellow residents and homeowners. Some people see the
proposed new luxury resort development as their chance to sell their land and hopefully, find a way
out of poverty and unemployment. Others just want to wait it out and see which way the legal battle
will tilt.

On the other hand, the developers are busy going about what developers usually do when faced with
a possibly hostile home crowd. They’re building a massive public relations campaign, cooperating
with city officials to make their proposals more palatable and offering whopping dollar sums to those
willing to sell.

What’s to happen in Riviera Beach is anyone’s guess, but knowing a bit about the recent history of
such poor communities and their inability to withstand economic shocks or to ride out sustained hard
times while collectively exploring niche markets to serve nearby rich clients, I’m not very hopeful.

And what about our own struggles with similar issues here at home? So far, acquisition of private land
must still be for public purpose only. This will save us for a while yet, or at least until some aggressive
and powerful developer manages to convince government that a particularly reluctant community of
landowners truly needs his development and that acquisition laws should be broadened to include sale
for private uses.

Until then, let’s all keep an eye on our cousins up in Riviera Beach. We just might have to welcome
them back home again.