Riviera Beach plaintiffs ask that
judge be recused
By: Robert D. Johnston
September 19, 2006
The eminent domain battle over Riviera Beach’s $2.4 billion, 400-acre
redevelopment has taken
another twist as plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the city seek to
disqualify Palm Beach Circuit Judge Diana Lewis from the case.
Pacific Legal Foundation managing attorney Valerie Fernandez, who
represents plaintiffs Jerry and Genie Corie and the Coalition for
Property Rights in a suit seeking to block the redevelopment project,
insists the judge must recuse herself because her father, Philip Lewis,
owns land in the redevelopment area.
Lewis rejected a motion for disqualification Aug. 16, but the foundation
filed a petition for writ of prohibition with the 4th District Court of
Appeal on Sept. 7 to challenge her decision.
The dispute may delay a hearing on the foundation’s motion for an
injunction at the heart of a fight over Riviera Beach’s plan to remake
older sections of the oceanfront city north of West Palm Beach.
The city approved the expansive use of eminent domain for private
redevelopment in May, a day before Gov. Jeb Bush signed a bill
restricting public takings to public purposes.
The city’s approach would be legal under a U.S. Supreme Court decision
last year allowing eminent domain for redevelopment. But the
Legislature picked up on the court’s broad hint that state lawmakers
could limit eminent domain to public uses, and Bush signed on.
The question of who will hear the case is only one problem for the
Riviera Beach City Council, which also acts as the city’s community
Multimillionaire Fane Lozman, who lives on a houseboat at a city-owned
marina, filed a separate lawsuit in June alleging the city broke the
state’s sunshine law as officials hurried to sign an
agreement with master developer Viking Inlet Harbor Properties.
Soon after Lozman sued, the city served him with an eviction notice for
walking his 10-pound miniature Dachshund
[ed. accent] without a muzzle.
As if the city hadn’t made enough enemies, the Institute for Justice, a
Libertarian public interest law firm based in Arlington, Va., announced
in June that it would represent other property owners targeted by
eminent domain in Riviera Beach. No clients’ names have been disclosed.
“Riviera Beach represents one of the largest and most blatant abuses of
eminent domain in the country,” said Dana Berliner, senior attorney at
the Institute for Justice. “Its plan to transfer
valuable waterfront property to private developers is illegal and
As the conflicts mount over the embattled project, its future becomes
increasingly uncertain. CRA executive director Floyd Johnson has come
under fire for what City Council officials say
are slow negotiations. The agency hired consultant Bernard Kinsey in May
to hopefully close the redevelopment deals quicker and with more
benefits for the city.
A pivotal meeting came May 10 when the City Council approved a contract
with Viking. That was the night before Bush signed the new eminent
domain law curtailing the eminent domain powers of public agencies. Bush
said Viking’s contract may be invalid because of a flawed public meeting
The law was a direct response to the Supreme Court decision in Kelo v.
New London, allowing the Connecticut city to serve as the middleman for
Carol Saviak, executive director of the Coalition for Property Rights,
lobbied for the new state law and supports Jerry and Genie Corie.
“The city’s actions are shameless and were undertaken with the clear
intention to thwart the intent of the Florida Legislature,” Saviak said.
“The city was fully aware of the direction and the
intention of the Legislature. … That they would make this last-moment
effort is unfathomable.”
Mayor Michael Brown, a real estate attorney who specializes in eminent
domain, has a completely different perspective. He considers the
lawsuits to be frivolous.
“It doesn’t take long to figure it out,” Brown said. “I’ve listened to
the Cories for eight or nine years, and it is evident they are troubled.
They are part of a group of people who are only comfortable so long as
they can keep other people beneath them.”
Brown is still upset about a visit to the city by Fox News’ “Hannity &
Colmes” earlier this year that he claims created hysteria over the
potential displacement of up to 6,000 residents. The redevelopment zone
covers a wide area, but not all of the property within the zone would be
The mayor also feels betrayed by Bush, who had endorsed the
redevelopment and “even bragged about it in commercial mission trips
with Enterprise Florida to Argentina, Chile and Brazil,” Brown said.
The mayor is certain the city will prevail in the lawsuits because the
Viking agreement is grandfathered by state law in effect at the time.
“The constitution clearly has clauses that protect contracts from being
invalidated by the government and legislation,” Brown said. “Our
position is that you cannot retroactively change the law. The tax
schedules for the next 30 years are based on these projects.
Viking came with the understanding that it [eminent domain] was
available and the Legislature supported it.”
The foundation’s Fernandez claims the CRA did not sign a contract with
Viking but only an intention to sign a contract, which is not binding
for the redevelopment work.
“We don’t think there’s a valid contract here but, even if there was,
the government has the right under its police powers to invalidate the
agreement in the interest of public health, safety and welfare,” she
said. “This was haphazardly thrown together to show the appearance of a
contract. It’s an agreement to agree with eminent domain in between.”
Bob Healey, who heads Viking Inlet Properties, is caught in between. He
said he was not surprised by the lawsuits, but he hoped to work out the
legal issues and allow the project to proceed.
The first 130-acre phase of redevelopment would focus on construction of
the $800 million International Harbor Village, a 50-acre, mixed-use
project stretching from the Riviera Beach
Marina north to Blue Heron Boulevard. About 300 affordable homes would
It appears the redevelopment envisioned more than 30 years ago faces
more delays. But the mayor still sees success for the city’s plan for a
largely blighted area.
“We are going to win because as many as 60 percent of our citizens
understand the stark conditions we face,” Brown said. “Palm Beach
cannot become world class until these pockets of
poverty are removed.”
Judge Lewis canceled a hearing Sept. 29 on the foundation’s injunction
request. She did not return a call seeking comment.
Fernandez contends Lewis’ denial of the disqualification motion was
“inadvertently imprudent” because she failed to look at the law behind
it. Lewis did not return calls for comment before
deadline on the appellate court filing.
“The motion should have been enough to disqualify,” Fernandez said.
“There was an appearance of impropriety.”
The judge’s father owns property at 31 W. 20th St. in Riviera Beach. The
property has been targeted for eminent domain on several occasions but
is not currently being considered.
“Whether or not it is taken eventually, Mr. Lewis has an interest in
these proceedings, and therefore it is not appropriate for Judge Lewis
to continue with this case,” Fernandez said.