Eminent Domain: Who defines the greater good?
April 22, 2006
RIVIERA BEACH, Fla.
- When Mayor Michael Brown envisions the future of this
hardscrabble city, he sees no poverty, no drug dealing and no
Brown sees hope and high-paying jobs. But progress doesn't come
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
An amendment and a bill are working their way through the Florida
Legislature to severely limit condemnations of personal property for any
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
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,"
"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?"