Sunday, June 18, 2006

Two Riviera Beach, Fla., residents have sued the city to try to stop condemnation of private property for development of a $2.4 billion, 400-acre waterfront project.

Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, has asked the state attorney general to review the legality of the city’s bid to bypass new state regulations against the use of eminent domain for such projects.

Russell Schweiss, a spokesman for the governor, said Mr. Bush thinks Riviera Beach may have violated state sunshine laws by its limited public notice of a City Council meeting on May 11. During that meeting, a resolution was approved authorizing a contract between the city and New Jersey-based developer Viking Inlet Harbor Properties for the redevelopment project. The next day, Mr. Bush signed the eminent-domain legislation.

Two Riviera Beach property owners who would be affected directly by the waterfront redevelopment project filed a lawsuit in the Palm Beach County Circuit Court on June 7, charging that the hastily called City Council meeting violates Florida statutes designed to ensure open government.

“Normally, we hear about a meeting five or seven days ahead of time,” unless it involves a weather emergency, plaintiff Fane Lozman said. “But this was just a little notice on a [City Hall] bulletin board the day before.”

Mr. Lozman said he lives on a houseboat in the city-run marina of Riviera Beach, which he says would be taken over by Viking under the redevelopment agreement. He said he is certain that he and as many as 200 other people “who live on boats in the marina” would be displaced so Viking “can make way for high-end yachts” and a multistory garage to house them.

“I want to remain on my houseboat in this city I love,” he said.

Mr. Lozman said his partner in the lawsuit, Virginia Merchant, initially signed a contract to sell her property for $2 million but later sold it for $800,000, when she was told she would receive only $572,000 if the site was condemned.

Meanwhile, the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) sought an injunction Monday to stop the project, which the low-income city says is crucial for its economic survival.

The public interest law firm said the Riviera Beach project is unlawful because a contract to proceed with the redevelopment was signed a week after Florida lawmakers “overwhelmingly” passed legislation “to prohibit cities from using the power of eminent domain for purposes of economic development.”

What’s more, PLF said, it was known that Mr. Bush was “set to sign the measure into law on May 11,” so the council “raced to pass a resolution authorizing a contract between the city” and Viking a day earlier.

PLF is representing Jerry and Rene Corie, residents of Riviera Beach who live in the area slated for redevelopment, as well as the Coalition for Property Rights, an Orlando-based nonprofit that “opposes threats to the sanctity of private property rights.”

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