A house under siege in Riviera Beach

Posted on Mon, Oct. 02, 2006

For the past few years, the nation's attention was riveted on a little pink house that was threatened by eminent domain in a coastal Connecticut town. That house, owned by Susette Kelo, was the focus of the most infamous U.S. Supreme Court decision in recent memory, Kelo v. City of New London. Although the U.S. Constitution says that private property can be condemned only for ''public use,'' the court held that government officials can condemn homes or businesses for private development so long as they think new owners could make more money with the land.

Now, more than one year after the Kelo decision, the nation's attention is turning to another pink house in a coastal town in Florida -- Riviera Beach in Palm Beach County. The house's owner is Princess Wells. She and her husband, who built the home, have lived there for more than 20 years, and they raised their four children there. But now her home, as well as her neighborhood, is under siege.

That is because the city, led by Mayor Michael Brown, intends to use eminent domain to take homes and businesses in the area so that a private developer can build a massive project that includes a yacht marina, luxury condominiums, chain retail stores
and hotels. To fight the threat of eminent domain imposed on her neighborhood, Princess has joined with business owners Mike and Nora Mahoney, fellow homeowner Artis Reaves and the Institute for Justice to file a lawsuit against the city in state court.

Mayor Brown claims that, by displacing Princess and other longtime residents of the predominantly working-class and African-American community, he's somehow helping them. This absurd argument is always made by city officials who want to replace current home and business owners with those who will generate more tax dollars.  Instead of working with existing
home and business owners to improve their neighborhoods -- through better policing, the creation of economic incentive
districts and expedited permitting -- cities like Riviera Beach have often treated them as obstacles that need to be removed.

The Kelo decision made that removal easier. As Justice Sandra Day O'Connor warned in her dissenting opinion, ``the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more.''

Kelo emboldened cities to use eminent domain for private projects, often in lower-income and minority neighborhoods. In just the past year after the Kelo decision, almost 6,000 properties were condemned or threatened to be condemned for the benefit of private parties. Compare that to the five-year period of 1998-2002 when the average number of abuses per year was around 2,000.

Kelo delighted tax-hungry cities and land-hungry developers, but it outraged the vast majority of Americans. Ordinary citizens and organizations from across the political spectrum -- including the NAACP, the Farm Bureau, the National Federation of
Independent Business, and the League of United Latin American Citizens -- fought to change state laws to better protect Americans from the kind of abuse Kelo  encouraged.

So far, 30 states have passed laws that provide increased protections against eminent-domain abuse for home and business owners. Florida's new law is among the best, because the Legislature made it clear that the use of eminent domain for private gain is forbidden.

But the city of Riviera Beach claims that its approval of a questionable eleventh-hour agreement with a developer -- just one day before Gov. Jeb Bush signed the new law -- magically allows it to disregard the new law's protections against eminent-domain abuse. This argument doesn't have a legal leg to stand on, but until a court stops the city's land-grab, the specter of eminent domain will haunt the little pink house of Princess Wells and other Riviera Beach property owners.

Bert Gall is a senior attorney for the Washington-based Institute for Justice.