Riviera weighs vow against eminent domain, lawsuits

RIVIERA BEACH Amid defending its right to use eminent domain, the city council will consider tonight whether to pass a resolution agreeing not to use the tool as part of its $2.4 billion redevelopment.

The resolution comes while the city is battling three lawsuits filed by residents who argue that Florida's new eminent domain law strips Riviera Beach of the power to take their land and give it to a private developer. Gov. Jeb Bush signed legislation in May that prevents governments from taking private property and giving it to developers for economic purposes.

However, on May 10, a day before Bush signed the law, the city entered into an agreement with Viking Inlet Harbor Properties to develop 400 acres of mostly blight along the Intracoastal  Waterway. A condition of the deal called for the council, sitting as the Community  Redevelopment Agency board, to use eminent domain on behalf of Viking.

The resolution, which City Attorney Pamela Ryan brought to the board, states that the city does not "intend to use eminent domain in violation of the new legislation."

It also uses the fact that no progress has been made on the Viking deal to justify writing the resolution.

But Bob Healey, Viking's chairman, said he doesn't support the resolution. He is sending a letter to the council to state his position in writing.

"We don't think it should be adopted," Healey said Tuesday. "All they're trying to do is get out of the lawsuits."

Mayor Michael Brown agrees. During an agenda review meeting Monday, he warned the council that approving the resolution could eliminate its legal right to challenge the new law.

Brown told council members he would provide information outlining how other cities and CRAs are planning to challenge the eminent domain reforms.

"We have a right to go into a court of law and have a judge determine whether the Florida legislature acted properly," Brown said. "Why would we give up that right by resolution?"

Based on the discussion, the council told Ryan to revise the resolution and bring it back to the board for a possible vote at tonight's council meeting.

Attorneys for the residents who sued the city say the resolution goes a long way toward possibly settling the lawsuits.

The attorneys, however, are skeptical of the city's intent and want more specific language in the resolution that clearly states Riviera Beach is subject to the new law.

"We want to make sure they're really serious about lifting the threat of eminent domain," said Bert Gall, an attorney for the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, which is representing Riviera Beach resident Princess Wells and business owners Michael and Nora Mahoney.

The institute was part of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that prompted states, including Florida, to limit eminent domain powers.

Gall said he and his staff are willing to work with the city to write a resolution that takes away the threat of eminent domain. He also wants to make sure that the resolution doesn't give the city the opportunity to come back later and use eminent domain based on a legal technicality.

Valerie A. Fernandez, managing attorney with the California-based Pacific Legal Foundation, said the resolution "dances around" the issue of making Riviera Beach accountable to the new law.

Fernandez, who represents Riviera Beach residents Jerry and Genie Corie and the Coalition for Property Rights, said the city's resolution also references a section in the law that primarily deals with the general use of eminent domain.

She would like the resolution to state that Riviera Beach is subject to the section of the law regarding CRA boards and their power to condemn property for the purpose of eliminating slum and blight.

"I would be entirely suspicious of this version," said Fernandez. "We want them to acknowledge that they will not use eminent domain within the CRA" boundaries.