Riviera domain lawsuits to end

RIVIERA BEACH Two legal advocacy groups that sued the city last year over its use of eminent domain will withdraw their lawsuits today, and declare victory for local businesses and homeowners.

The Pacific Legal Foundation and the Institute for Justice represent Riviera Beach business and home owners who sued after the city council entered into an agreement with its master developer, Viking Inlet Harbor Properties, to use eminent domain.

In the deal a year ago today, the council agreed to take private property on behalf of Viking as part of its $2.4 billion waterfront redevelopment. Viking had plans to turn 400 acres of mostly blight along the Intracoastal Waterway into shops, restaurants, a hotel, marina, aquarium and condos.

The council's deal with Viking was an attempt to continue using eminent domain even though then-Gov. Jeb Bush was about to sign Florida's new eminent domain law, which outlawed the practice of governments taking private land and giving it to developers for the purpose of economic development. The maneuver outraged some residents.

Valerie Fernandez, the Pacific Legal Foundation's managing attorney in its Stuart office, said she is withdrawing the lawsuit because her clients feel secure that the city will not try to use eminent domain in violation of the law.

The climate has changed in the city because of the March election, in which voters ousted the mayor and three council members who signed the deal with Viking. The new mayor and council members don't support the city's use of eminent domain as part of the Viking deal.

"We feel that the new administration is on board with following the state law," said Fernandez, who represents homeowners Jerry and Rene Corie. Fernandez planned to announce the withdrawal officially today during a news conference at their home.

Attorney Bert Gall of the Institute for Justice said the ouster of Mayor Michael Brown was critical to the decision to withdraw the suit.

Brown always said that last year's agreement gave the city the right to use the tool, despite changes in the law.

Gall said the city has acknowledged that the deal with Viking has expired. And with Brown out, Gall's clients no longer saw the need to pursue their case against the city.

"Mayor Brown was openly defying the law, and he's gone," said Gall, whose Virginia-based group represents home and business owners Princess Wells and Michael and Nora Mahoney. "Right now, we feel our clients' right to keep their homes and businesses have been vindicated by their lawsuit."

In November, the council adopted a resolution agreeing to abide by Florida's new eminent domain law. But both legal groups believed the resolution left the door open for the city to challenge the law.

New Council Chairman Shelby Lowe welcomed the news that the lawsuits were being withdrawn. He said it was good that the two legal groups believed that the new mayor and council would fulfill their constituents' will.

"It's apparent they believe in our commitment to the people," Lowe said.