National group files Riviera eminent domain suit

WEST PALM BEACH Princess Wells is eager to remove the vestiges of Hurricane Wilma from her Riviera Beach home. But she worries that any money she spends will truly be gone with the wind.

Nora and Mike Mahoney say they just want to find tenants so they can turn their office building on Broadway into a going concern.

Wells and the Mahoneys say they face the same obstacle: the city of Riviera Beach.

On Tuesday, they stood alongside lawyers for the Virginia-based Institute for Justice and explained why they lent their names to a lawsuit filed that day challenging the city's plan to seize their properties for a planned $2.4 billion waterfront development.

Wells and the Mahoneys said the city's plan to condemn their property through eminent domain has made it impossible for them to carry on their lives.

The Mahoneys said few are interested in renting offices in their Main Street Plaza, a former rundown motel that they spent at least $200,000 renovating. Once would-be tenants hear that the building may be seized by the city, they look elsewhere, the Mahoneys said.

Wells said her beauty salon on Singer Island and house on West 27th Street are in the path of the planned redevelopment project. Joining the lawsuit, she said, is a way to seize her rights.

"I'm a United States of America citizen and I have a right to stay in my home," she said.

Robert Gall, one of the lawyers for the justice institute, called the city's action "outrageous." He pointed out that officials inked the deal with developer Viking Inlet Harbor Properties a day before Gov. Jeb Bush in May signed a law making it illegal for governments to use the power of eminent domain to seize private property and give it to developers to spur economic rebirth.

"The city of Riviera Beach is trying to flout the law," he said.

Reached later, Mayor Michael Brown had equally strong words for the institute.

Calling it the "Institute for Injustice," he said the suit is just another attempt to keep his poverty-racked city from prospering. Riviera Beach played by the rules and the rules can't be changed in mid-game, he said.

A graduate of Howard University law school, he said he is talking to some of his former constitutional law professors about defending the city in the suit.

The institute was involved in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that this year spurred Florida and other states to restrict eminent domain powers.

Lawyers described the suit against Riviera as a "test case" that will be watched by city officials throughout the country.

Brown predicted they will watch Riviera Beach win.

"It's a publicity stunt for the institute. It's a publicity stunt for the law firm," he said. "It's a joke."