Eminent Domain: Who defines the greater good?

Associated Press
April 22, 2006

When Mayor Michael Brown envisions the future of this hardscrabble city, he sees no poverty, no drug dealing and no prostitution.

Brown sees hope and high-paying jobs. But progress doesn't come without sacrifice.

The city's multibillion-dollar effort to remake itself could send to up to 6,000 residents packing in potentially one of the nation's largest eminent domain seizures, leaving many wondering who defines progress. The project has placed Riviera Beach at the center of a nationwide battle over whether government should be allowed to force people from their properties for construction of private development.

"You can't just take away from people what they've worked so hard for," said Princess Wells, 54, whose home and salon are slated for removal under the city's plan.

The proposed $2.4 billion project to revamp the marina district in one of Palm Beach County's poorest cities includes high-end condominiums, houses, shops, offices and yacht slips. About 1,700 homes and businesses are slated for condemnation to make way for construction.

Brown sees it as a catalyst for prosperity that will bring opportunities - and millions in tax revenue - to the rest of the city, where a quarter of the 31,000 residents live in poverty.

"(Italian philosopher Niccolo) Machiavelli said it best - the hardest thing to do is to sustain and change the order of things," Brown said. "I will use every ounce of energy I have to fight to make a better life for these people. There will be no more lower class.

"For all those who don't like it, tough."

Traditionally, governments have used eminent domain to build public facilities like schools, parks, prisons, airports and roads. But the Supreme Court ruled last year in a Connecticut case that local governments can use eminent domain to seize property for private developers if it will be used to raise the city's tax base and benefit the entire community.

The ruling left open the option for states to devise their own regulations.

An amendment and a bill are working their way through the Florida Legislature to severely limit condemnations of personal property for any private use.

"From the barbershops to the courthouse, all I've heard was 'Please don't let them take our property,'" Rep. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, said after the House recently passed by a 116-0 vote a restrictive eminent domain bill (HB 1567). The measure now goes before the Senate.

"I don't think people's property should be taken for private use, period," Gov. Jeb Bush said following the vote.

In February, South Dakota became the first state to enact a law that prohibits government from seizing personal property through eminent domain for private use. Indiana, Georgia and other states have since enacted similar laws, among 47 states, including Florida, that are considering or have already enacted such laws.

Dana Berliner, a lawyer for the nonprofit Washington, D.C-based Institute for Justice, says Riviera Beach's plan is the largest current project in the country under which a city is attempting to recreate itself with the threat of eminent domain seizures.

"Once you allow eminent domain to be used for private development and for increasing taxes, you don't have limits anymore, and that means that people can lose their homes repeatedly," said Berliner, who represented the Connecticut homeowners in the Supreme Court case.

"This land is very valuable and the attitude is 'Why should we waste this prime real estate on low income people?'" she added. "It's a terrible thing."

Wells is holding her ground, refusing to sell. The developers who have offered some residents twice the market values for their homes have not approached her, leaving few options but to eventually accept the city's offer of about 30 percent above appraisal, plus relocation assistance.

"What, little people aren't important anymore? America is made of little people, small hardworking people," Wells said angrily. "Stability means a lot to people and to have that swept away, that's just devastating.

"In how many other American communities is so much being taken from people who have so little?" she said.

Mayor Brown, a lawyer who is serving his fourth term, says Riviera Beach is on the brink of bankruptcy and needs redevelopment if it is ever to thrive here in Palm Beach County, home to some of the world's wealthiest people. He says young adults, in particular, will benefit from the expanded economy.

"In order to be a vibrant city, the people who live here have to have decent jobs," he said. "Why should we continue to allow these kids to be guaranteed an early death or continued poverty?"

But there's an inherent distrust in government here, an idea that Brown and officials like him have lost their way.

Wells remembers the glisten in the mayor's eyes when he once called the town a "gold mine."

Her husband built their tidy single-story pink house 23 years ago, and the couple raised four children there.

"When we built our house, we didn't have much money. We prayed a lot," Wells said. "We love our house. Why would I sell?"

Wells has no idea where she would go, given the high price of new housing and the added costs of insurance on a more expensive home.

Floyd Johnson, director of Riviera Beach's Community Redevelopment Agency and the man in charge of administering the project, says the city will likely only have to seize some 30 properties under eminent domain. He says others will sell to developers or take the city's buyout, but they don't have much choice.

"We are uniquely positioned to do something that will launch a turning point in the lives of this community," said the former city manager of Fort Lauderdale and blighted Richmond, Calif., outside San Francisco.

Johnson compares Riviera Beach's plan to the construction of the nation's interstate highway system, a project that connected coasts and commerce and paved the way for economic prosperity but displaced thousands in its path.

"A rising tide will hopefully raise all ships," Johnson said. "There are those who are reminiscent of the good old days here. The greater good extends beyond them."

He predicts the project will move forward regardless of any new laws, but admits it could make the situation difficult.

"It could potentially slow down projects if the power of eminent domain were completely removed," he said. "It would empower the people and delay the whole shooting match."

Viking Inlet Harbor Properties, a joint venture between Viking Yacht Co. and resort-development firm Portfolio Group, is overseeing and developing the project.

Viking CEO Robert Healy notes that he'll build up to 800 affordable homes in Riviera Beach, bring in 1,500 new jobs and create a 400-student maritime vocational academy.

"Now I'm no saint. I'm a good businessman," Healy said, adding that the plan will benefit him and residents. "That's good business."

Painter Martha Babson, 58, sold her $220,000 house in the redevelopment zone for $732,000 to billionaire H. Wayne Huizenga, founder of Blockbuster Entertainment and owner of the NFL's Miami Dolphins. Huizenga is also working with Viking.

Babson says she only sold under the threat of eminent domain, and would never have left her home of 13 years. She's now considering moving inland to find affordable housing.

"I'm outraged. This is so un-American. It's legalized stealing," Babson said.

"Unless the state changes the law, people of my echelon, the financially challenged, will always be the people who get moved. Is there ever an end?" she said. "What is to stop the same thing from happening to me again somewhere else?"