A redevelopment plan in the small city of Riviera Beach, Fla., has drawn national attention as part of the eminent domain firestorm. The working-class, predominantly black community sits across the Lake Worth Lagoon from the playground of billionaires, Palm Beach. According to the U.S. Census, in 2000 the median household income in Riviera Beach was $32,111, compared with $45,062 for Palm Beach County and $94,592 for the city of Palm Beach. No one denies that the city could use an economic shot in the arm.
As planned, the $2.4 billion Inlet Harbor redevelopment project would center on the commercial marine industry and involves moving U.S. 1 to the west to dig a lagoon deep enough to welcome multimillion-dollar mega-yachts. The 400-acre, multiuse project would include nearly 3,500 residential units, hotels, more than a million square feet of office space, 19 acres of beaches, a public aquarium, and a shopping, dining, and entertainment district.
Florida law allows the taking of land by eminent domain to alleviate blight. In 2001, a study commissioned by Riviera Beach declared about a third of the city to be blighted. As originally planned, the redevelopment area could require relocating more than 5,000 people, making it potentially the largest eminent domain project in the country. More recently, city officials said the project won't require moving anywhere near that many people.
Before property is taken, however, developers are buying parcels privately—at prices of up to three times the assessed value, according to news reports. If no agreement can be reached privately, the city can take the parcels by eminent domain.
As the plan moved forward, opponents reviewed the blight study in detail and reported that several parcels described as vacant, blighted, or substandard actually had homes built as recently as two years before the study.
The day after the 2005 Supreme Court decision allowing local government to use eminent domain for private development, the Florida speaker of the house announced the creation of the Select Committee to Protect Property Rights to study Florida law regarding eminent domain and suggest changes to restrict its use in the state.
And protection is desperately needed, says Carol Saviak, executive director of the Orlando-based Coalition for Property Rights. The state's definition of blight is so broad, virtually any neighborhood in the state could be taken. For example, one of the 14 definitions of blight is faulty lot layout, which Florida statutes describe as being too small, not accessible, or not useful. Another is insufficient infrastructure, such as a lack of drainage, sewage lines, or roads. Only two of the 14 criteria need to be met to designate an area as blighted, Saviak says. If all the municipalities involved agree, only one of 14 needs to be met.
Rep. Ron Greenstein, (D-Coconut Creek), a member of the select committee, says that the redevelopment process has actually worked the way it should in Riviera Beach. Many homeowners have received very attractive offers to purchase their properties; so far, not a single property has advanced to the courts for condemnation under eminent domain.
Greenstein is concerned that in the attempt to restrict the use of eminent domain, state legislators will go too far and do away with it completely. That's already been proposed in a bill from the state's Senate Judiciary Committee, and it would be a mistake if it were passed, he says, especially since it would impact cases already under way.
“I think we should use eminent domain for development as a last resort,” Greenstein says. “We should not be throwing the baby out with the bath water. You can't tell people who have already invested money, ‘The hell with you.' Why would anybody want to redevelop in the state of Florida?”
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Orlando, FL.