- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 2, 2006


On a recent evening, Princess Wells stood in the front yard of the one-story house she and her husband built here 23 years ago, questioning how this city has the power to force her to leave in the name of economic development.

It was an unusually cool night for this seaside South Florida town. But as the moon began to rise above her sharply painted pink house, Mrs. Wells was just warming up.

“This is about the haves and the have-nots, and whether or not you’ve got the right to keep your house,” she said.

“You’ve got little people here that have houses, and they have lives, and they have histories. We don’t have the millions of dollars, but what we have I think is just as valuable.”

The tiny patch of land where Mrs. Wells, 54, and her husband raised their four children sits today near the center of a massive redevelopment map with orange stripes across it, signifying its eligibility to be taken by eminent domain.

The city has yet to use the controversial land-seizure tool in this predominantly black, low-income city, but since the U.S. Supreme Court last year upheld its use for economic rebirth, this city has become a flash point over the morality of the law’s potential large-scale usage.

Documents for the state-approved plan show “1,700 households and a population of over 5,100 residents” within the zone are eligible for seizure to make way for new yacht slips, high-end condominiums and office space.

“The elimination of private property is the very first thing in the Communist Manifesto,” says Martha Babson, 58, a longtime vocal critic of Riviera Beach’s plan.

Despite recently having sold her property to developers for $732,000, she continues to rally other residents against the threat of eminent domain, stressing her belief that city officials are pushing their plan to get rich, not help poor people.

Riviera Beach Mayor Michael Brown dismisses such critics, saying a vocal minority against the redevelopment is shrinking as they take buyouts from developers, and he predicts the city will seize fewer than 60 homes.

“That whole desire that they had to preserve and fight for the little person,” he said, stopping in midsentence for emphasis: “Cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching.”

“They got so much money, they’re moving somewhere else, so they’re disingenuous,” the mayor said.

Mayor Brown estimates that because so many owners are selling to high-paying developers, actual enforcement of eminent domain during the coming years will be limited to fewer than 60 homes.

Riviera Beach officials claim the vast majority of residents here support the plan to redevelop their impoverished city, regardless of whether the forced sale of any family homes will be needed to make it happen.

Mr. Brown, a Democrat, says some find the plan troublesome because “it hasn’t been done anywhere else before.”

“You’ve got a black city with black leadership in partnership with megamillion-dollar corporations,” he said.

“What’s really made people nervous is that we have reached out to very powerful and wealthy developers who normally are not associated with communities like ours.”

Mr. Brown says his passion for the redevelopment has more to do with a desire to empower the city’s downtrodden people than anything else.

In September, the Riviera Beach City Council chose Viking Inlet Harbor Properties to be the “master developer” overseeing deals and construction within the 400-acre city- and state-approved redevelopment zone.

VIHP, which is still working out final details of its agreement with the city, is a joint venture between the world-renowned Viking Group yacht company, and Portfolio Group, the U.S. branch of an Australian resort-development firm.

Others involved so far, but not in any official capacity with the city, include Lockheed Martin and billionaire businessman H. Wayne Huizenga, who founded and sold Blockbuster Entertainment, and owns, among other things, the Miami Dolphins NFL football team.

A Howard University Law School graduate and mayor here since 1999, Mr. Brown says a central aspect of the redevelopment plan is its inclusion of affordable-housing zones for low-income residents.

About one in four of the city’s 31,000 residents lives below the poverty line. A trailer park and more than a dozen blocks of dilapidated neighborhoods dominate the downtown landscape.

“For the last 30 years, the government has told all of these communities, which are the homes to the most powerless people in the country, come up with a plan to help save yourself,” said Mr. Brown, adding that traditional revitalization projects funded exclusively by the government have failed in cities nationwide.

“How is it that governments have totally wiped out minority communities or powerless communities to build football stadiums, baseball stadiums … to expand airports, to put in water-retention areas, and no one said a word.”

Mr. Brown estimates that over the next 10 years, as much as $6 billion worth of new buildings will go up in the zone.

Riviera Beach is attracting big business to redevelop using the “same tools and the laws that were put on the books by the legislators … and the same laws that the Supreme Court said are legal,” he said.

The redevelopment zone covers about a third of Riviera Beach’s costal and inland properties, and calls for a rerouting of U.S. Route 1 through a new downtown to be built on land currently occupied by what city officials say are run-down homes.

At the core of the plan is a newly zoned waterfront space reserved for the private construction of hundreds of new yacht slips, high-end condominiums, office space, a multilevel garage for boats, a 96,000-square-foot aquarium and a manmade lagoon.

Viking Group Chairman Robert Healey says the plan’s beauty and legality under Florida and U.S. federal law is rooted in its inclusion of the city’s poorest residents.

“Yes, the redevelopment plans include the marina, boats and yachts and restaurants and hotels; however, those entities are just components,” Mr. Brown said.

As the money pours in, he said, property values will increase citywide, resulting in expanded tax revenue to benefit poorer existing areas, and revenues from sales and other taxes will rocket from the new economy built around the yacht harbor.

As part of the plan, Mr. Healey said, Viking has already bankrolled a new 400-student maritime vocational academy to open this year in Riviera Beach. The goal, he said, is to create jobs and grow a local boat-construction and maintenance work force directly from the city’s youth.

Mr. Healey acknowledged the massive potential profits to be gleaned from hundreds of new yacht slips to house million-dollar yachts, but stressed the maritime academy, whose location is pending, will marry the local population to the gains.

He said the school will include an apprenticeship program to train Riviera Beach youths at Viking’s own yacht-building facility and present them with job opportunities that never before existed.

The plan also calls for 1,100 affordable-housing units to replace boarded-up houses that pepper existing neighborhoods in the redevelopment zone.

“The bottom line here is, this is a community that’s dead, and it’s been dead for 20 years,” Mr. Healey said. “This is bringing life back into it.”

Boating-industry leaders hail the plan, saying Riviera Beach has long been overlooked despite its shoreline adjacent to a rare coastal inlet leading directly to the deepwater Atlantic.

Frank Herhold, executive director of the Marine Industry Association of South Florida, called the plan “not only huge and it includes a significant number of new slips for slip-starved South Florida, but it also addresses important related issues, such as the need for a trained work force.”

‘Just compensation’

Historically, eminent domain has been used by government to acquire private property for public projects, from expansion of the country’s railroads to the interstate highways and, more recently, for major airports.

Last year, however, the Supreme Court upheld the right of New London, Conn., to use eminent domain for economic development, as long as the development plan includes multipurpose elements such as affordable housing in addition to hotels and luxury condos.

In the landmark 5-4 ruling, the justices said that because the end result would be increased tax revenue for the city, the development served a “public purpose” and could be considered public use. The city was enforcing eminent domain to seize waterfront homes so that the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. could build a multimillion-dollar research center on the land.

The ruling sparked outrage among property-rights advocates, who say that even before eminent domain is enforced in areas pushing redevelopment, city officials are prone to using it to threaten homeowners into selling to developers.

Opponents of the Riviera Beach plan say that has happened to dozens of homeowners who sold to avoid settling for the minimum “just compensation” that the Constitution guarantees owners forced to sell by the law.

A key part of the ruling, Kelo v. New London, is that individual states have the power to place “restrictions” on eminent domain.

Lawmakers in some 43 states are re-examining their laws relating to eminent domain seizures, according to the Institute for Justice.

Among the fiercest battlegrounds is Florida, where state Rep. Everette Rice, a Republican, has introduced a resolution to put an amendment before voters to change the state constitution to “prohibit economic development as a basis for eminent domain.”

It is not yet clear whether the resolution will pass the Florida House of Representatives, although the House itself responded to Kelo by creating a special committee to ensure “eminent domain is only asserted in situations where the public necessity and the public benefit are very clear.”

In Riviera Beach, city officials say adequate measures already have been taken to show the dire public need for redevelopment and the great public benefit that will result.

Critics of the city’s plan are driven by a “hysteria that flowed from the Kelo decision,” says Floyd T. Johnson, executive director of the Riviera Beach Community Redevelopment Agency, the body that determines the borders of the city’s redevelopment zone and serves as a liaison between elected city officials and developers.

So far, Viking Inlet Properties alone has spent about $20 million buying up about 60 properties in the redevelopment zone without eminent domain being enforced.

Caught in the middle

Riviera Beach had to get state approval to create its redevelopment zone and have the authority to use eminent domain within the zone. City officials had to prove parts of the city slated for redevelopment met the definition of “slum and blight,” as required by state law.

Traditional characteristics include boarded-up or abandoned homes. While the city has its fair share of both, some residents claim city leaders cheated on a slum-and-blight study they submitted to the state by honing in on controversial statistics.

One characteristic that defines blight under Florida law is a high volume of calls to police in a given area.

Al Loriol, who formerly sat on a neighborhood crime-watch committee in Riviera Beach, says that when the study was conducted, city officials encouraged residents to call the police whenever they saw a suspicious vehicle in their neighborhood.

“So we did,” Mr. Loriol said. “And then they took all those police calls and turned it around on us and based on those calls, they said that area was blighted.”

With the threat of eminent domain looming, Mr. Loriol said he and his wife are in negotiation to sell the home they have lived in for 31 years to a developer. Beyond saying they were “getting a good deal,” the couple declined to reveal how much above market value they will be paid for the house.

Regardless of the dollar figure, Mr. Loriol insisted, “It was a dead deal. We were pressured into selling.”

A handful of vocal residents, including Mrs. Wells, who in addition to her home, owns a hair salon in the designated redevelopment zone, say they don’t want to move, no matter what the price.

“No city has the right to act as real-estate agents,” said Bonnie L. Larson, who lives near the center of the redevelopment zone in a modest, one-story house that her father built in 1949 after immigrating to the city from Denmark.

Mr. Brown says his passion for the redevelopment has more to do with a desire to empower the city’s downtrodden people than anything else.

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