- The Washington Times - Monday, May 29, 2006

Officials in Riviera Beach, Fla., plan to proceed with a $2.4 billion waterfront revitalization project despite legislation signed earlier this month by Gov. Jeb Bush that is designed to block the use of eminent domain for economic redevelopment by private interests.

The governor’s office and attorneys for some homeowners who are fighting the project say the law prohibits local governments from seizing private property from one owner and transferring it to another within 10 years. It also bars condemnation of private properties on the basis of designations such as “slum” or “blighted area,” terms that sometimes have been misapplied.

Critics of eminent domain think the mammoth project planned by the city and New Jersey-based developer Viking Inlet Harbor Properties Inc. would be restricted by the new law, but city and company officials disagree.

“We signed a contract with Viking for this project [May 10], and Governor Bush signed his bill on [May 11], and it took effect immediately,” Riviera Beach Mayor Michael Brown said Tuesday.

“As a lawyer who graduated from Howard University, I know that under the contract clause of the U.S. Constitution, you can’t pass a law to impair a contract. We had contractual arrangements even before” the development agreement was signed, he said.

In fact, Mr. Brown said, Viking expects “to break ground in the next three or four months” for what he described as the “first phase” of the project. He vowed that any attempts to use the new law to block condemnation of properties in Riviera Beach would be challenged in court. Those properties are to be torn down to make way for hundreds of yacht slips, pricey condominiums, shops, office space, a 96,000-square-foot aquarium and a maritime school.

“We absolutely expect victory. We have to win to save this city. This is a rescue mission,” said the mayor, who leads a predominantly black municipality that has fallen on hard economic times.

Mr. Brown said his city needs the jobs and increased tax revenues that the redevelopment project can generate.

But Bert Gall, a lawyer at the Institute of Justice, a public-interest law firm that is monitoring the Riviera Beach situation, said, “You can’t contract to do something illegal. The mayor is abusing power that is supposed to be used for a public purpose. But, in this case, [Riviera Beach and Viking] want to kick minorities out of their homes and businesses [to benefit private interests], and it is unconstitutional to use eminent domain in this way.”

Russell Schweiss, a spokesman for Mr. Bush, said Riviera Beach would be subject to the restrictions on condemnation imposed by the new state law, because no properties had been condemned by the time the governor signed the statute.

“No eminent domain proceedings have yet been filed,” Mr. Schweiss said last week.

However, at Viking’s behest, Riviera Beach’s Community Redevelopment Agency has sent out letters to 30 homeowners, making individual offers to buy their property and informing them that they could be subject to condemnation if they refuse.

More than 40 states have re-examined their eminent-domain laws since the U.S. Supreme Court issued a divided ruling in June last year that said private properties can be seized for use by developers with plans to improve the economy. The same decision said states have the authority to address the matter as they see fit.

“Governor Bush has no objection to redevelopment, but he does not think government should use its police powers to take private property from an individual and give it to a private developer,” Mr. Schweiss said.

He also said Mr. Bush thinks it’s wrong for Riviera Beach and Viking to “unnecessarily alarm” homeowners by telling them that their homes will be seized if they do not agree to sell.

Riviera Beach and Viking “are going to proceed, but we don’t know the scope of the project because they won’t give us clear answers,” said Andrew Brigham, a lawyer representing some Riviera Beach homeowners who want to keep their property. “We don’t think they have a constitutional purpose. You don’t save a neighborhood by selling it to a developer.”

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