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Florida Eminent Domain Plan Could Be Largest

Brian Skoloff

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offices and yacht slips. To enraged owners of property slated for condemnation, Brown says the sacrifice is necessary for progress.

"(Italian philosopher Niccolo) Machiavelli said it best -- the hardest thing to do is to sustain and change the order of things," Brown says. "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."

The project, potentially one of the country's largest eminent domain seizures, has placed Riviera Beach at the center of a nationwide battle over whether government should be allowed to seize property for private development.

"You can't just take away from people what they've worked so hard for," says Princess Wells, 54, whose home and salon are slated for removal under the $2.4 billion plan.

Traditionally, governments have used eminent domain to build public facilities, but cities have increasingly used the power to make room for private development.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that such seizures are allowable if the construction raises the tax base and benefits the entire community. But it added a caveat: States can restrict the use of eminent domain. Legislators in Florida and elsewhere are scrambling to do so. Gov. Jeb Bush is likely to sign the measure if the Senate approves it.

"From the barbershops to the courthouse, all I've heard was, `Please don't let them take our property,'" Rep. Arthenia Joyner said after a recent 116-0 House vote on legislation that would severely limit the condemnations for any private use.

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 enacted similar 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 of its kind in the country.

"This land is very valuable and the attitude is, `Why should we waste this prime real estate on low-income people?'" says Berliner, who represented Connecticut homeowners in the Supreme Court case. "It's a terrible thing."

Wells refuses to sell the single-story pink home her husband built 23 years ago. The couple raised four children there.

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

Developers who have offered some homeowners twice the market values have not approached her, leaving few options but to accept the city's offer of about 30 percent above appraisal, plus relocation assistance.

The mayor says Riviera Beach is on the brink of bankruptcy and needs redevelopment if it is to thrive in wealthy Palm Beach County. Brown sees the project as a catalyst for opportunities -- and millions in tax revenue -- for the city, where a quarter of residents live in poverty.

Viking Inlet Harbor Properties, a joint venture between Viking Yacht Co. and resort firm Portfolio Group, is developing the project. Viking CEO Robert Healy says it will bring in 1,500 higher paying jobs, up to 800 affordable homes and create a 400-student maritime vocational academy.

Floyd Johnson, director of Riviera Beach's Community Redevelopment Agency and the project's chief administrator, compares it to building the nation's interstate highways, which connected coasts and commerce but displaced thousands.

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

He says any new state restrictions could slow the project but would not stop it, and adds that he expects the city will have to seize only about 30 properties.

Some residents, however, say it is only the threat of seizure that compelled them to sell.

"I'm outraged. This is so un-American. It's legalized stealing," says painter Martha Babson, 58, who sold her home in the project zone to a developer and is considering moving inland to find affordable housing.

"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?"