An Eminent Domain High Tide
It’s across the inlet from Palm Beach, but this town -- mostly black, blue-collar and with a large industrial and warehouse district -- could be a continent away from the Fortune 500 and Rolls-Royce set.
But Riviera Beach’s fortunes may soon change.
In what has been called the largest eminent-domain case in the nation, the mayor and other elected leaders want to move about 6,000 residents, tear down their homes and use the emptied 400-acre site to build a waterfront yachting and residential complex for the well-to-do.
The goal, Mayor Michael D. Brown said during a public meeting in September, is to “forever change the landscape” in this municipality of about 32,500. The $1-billion plan, local leaders have said, should generate jobs and haul Riviera Beach’s economy out of the doldrums.
Opponents, however, call the plan a government-sanctioned land grab that benefits private developers and the wealthy.
“What they mean is that the view I have is too good for me, and should go to some millionaire,” said Martha Babson, 60, a house painter who lives near the Intracoastal Waterway.
“This is a reverse Robin Hood,” said state Rep. Ronald L. Greenstein, meaning the poor in Riviera Beach would be robbed to benefit the rich. Greenstein, a Coconut Creek Democrat, serves on a state legislative committee making recommendations on how to strengthen safeguards on private property.
With many Americans sensitized to eminent-domain cases after a much-discussed ruling by the Supreme Court in June, property-rights organizations have been pointing to redevelopment plans in this Palm Beach County town as proof that laws must be changed to protect homeowners and businesses from the schemes of politicians.
“You have people going in, essentially playing God, and saying something better than these people’s homes should be built on this property,” said Carol Saviak, executive director of the Coalition for Property Rights, based in Orlando. “That’s inherently wrong.”
“Unfortunately, taking poorer folks’ homes and turning them into higher-end development projects is all too routine in Florida and throughout the country,” said Scott G. Bullock, a senior attorney for the Institute for Justice, based in Washington. “What distinguishes Riviera Beach is the sheer scope of the project, and the number of people it displaces.”
In June, a divided U.S. Supreme Court approved the plan of New London, Conn., to force some homeowners to sell their properties for a private development that was supposed to generate more jobs and tax revenue. That ruling has led to moves in Congress and at least 35 states, including Florida, to restrict the use of eminent-domain seizures of private property.
In Florida, the law allows local officials to take private land for redevelopment if they deem it “blighted.” In May 2001, a study conducted for the city found that “slum and blighted conditions” existed in about a third of Riviera Beach, and that redevelopment was necessary “in the interest of public health, safety, morals and welfare.”
A skeptical Babson, who lives in a single-story, concrete-block home painted aqua that she shares with parrots and a dog, did her own survey. For three months, she walked the streets of Riviera Beach photographing houses classified as “dilapidated” or “deteriorated” by specialists hired by the city.
The official study, she said, was riddled with errors and misclassifications. Lots inventoried as “vacant” (one of 14 criteria that allow Florida cities or counties to declare a neighborhood blighted) actually had homes on them built in 1997, she said. One house deemed “dilapidated,” she found, was two years old.
Rene Corie has lived for nine years in a custard-yellow home near the Intracoastal. When the house was earmarked for acquisition under eminent domain four years ago, the 56-year-old seamstress became so depressed she couldn’t put up her Christmas tree. She and her husband decided to fight City Hall in order to keep their home, or at the least, be paid a fair market price for it.
“We tried to elect a new mayor, we went around to churches, we stood on street corners with signs,” Corie said. “When we got home from work, me and David would get into the truck and go door to door, and all day Saturday and Sunday.”
Corie said she could be served at any time with another letter of acquisition for the house and the double lot it sits on. “My home is no longer my own,” she said.
Mayor Brown and Floyd T. Johnson, executive director of the Riviera Beach Community Redevelopment Agency, did not respond to repeated requests from The Times for an interview.
The redevelopment agency’s website says the plan will “create a city respected for its community pride and purpose and reshape it into a most desirable urban [place] to live, work, shop, and relax for its residents, business and visitors.”
In past media interviews, Brown has said his city was in dire need of jobs, and that if officials weren’t allowed to resort to eminent domain to spur growth, Riviera Beach could perish. ‘
Dee Cunningham, who made an unsuccessful bid for mayor in 2003, said the blueprint was written to benefit developers. Her own flower shop has been classified as “functionally obsolete” under the plan and could be razed.
“People here are so stressed out from being under threat of eminent domain,” said Cunningham. “It’s like living in Iraq with a bomb threat.”
The median household income in Riviera Beach in 2000 was $32,111 compared with $94,562 in nearby Palm Beach, the U.S. Census said.
The redevelopment project designed to bootstrap Riviera Beach to prosperity is supposed to take 15 years. It involves moving U.S. Highway 1 and digging an artificial lagoon to serve as a yacht basin.
In September, the City Council chose a joint venture between a New Jersey-based yacht company and a builder of condominiums in Australia to serve as master developer. The developer, Viking Inlet Harbor Properties, and the city now must agree on a contract.
Residents affected by the plan are supposed to be eligible for new homes elsewhere in Riviera Beach and compensation for business damages. But the uncertainties have been maddening for some.
For 25 years, Bill Mars has sold and serviced luxury sportfishing boats in Riviera Beach. He hasn’t been told yet, he said, whether a place in the redevelopment zone has been kept for him.
Under the plan, his sales and service center is supposed to make way for an aquarium.
“If you look at our business, we’re one of the shining stars of Riviera Beach,” Mars said. “Yet no one has come to us to say, ‘We’re going to take care of you and relocate you.’ ” That despite the plan’s incorporation of a “working waterfront,” including boat sales and repair.
The owners of another business in Riviera Beach’s downtown accuse local leaders of not enforcing city codes in order to produce the decay that redevelopment is supposed to remedy.
“They want to leave everything in a dilapidated condition so it seems to everybody and to the government like it’s blighted,” said Mike Mahoney, a Riviera Beach native who runs Dee’s T-Shirts.
Some foes of the redevelopment plan have attended seminars in Washington organized by property-rights advocates to learn how to better fight to save their homes.
Some residents have accepted offers from developers and moved out; others have retained lawyers to try to get a better price from the city. Still others are waiting to see what happens, noting the troubled history of local redevelopment efforts. “This is the fourth eminent domain CRA plan I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” said Mars. “I survived those, and I may survive this one too.”
Babson said she was counting on the Florida Legislature, as well as public interest kindled by the recent Supreme Court case, to halt the developers.
“We’re definitely in Tiananmen Square: one little guy in front of all of those tanks,” Babson said. “We’ve slowed them down, but we haven’t stopped them.”