Condo developer wants Hollywood to seize storefronts from uncooperative widow: South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 6/21/05

By Shannon O'Boye

A recently widowed immigrant is holding up a developer's plan to build a 19-story condo complex [in] downtown [Hollywood FL] — and the city is poised to step in to stop her.

Katalin Mach said her husband, George, never wanted to sell the small, one-story building that is home to the beauty salon he managed years ago.

"I don't care what they want to offer. I don't want to sell," said Mach, whose family has owned the property near Young Circle for 34 years.

Developer Charles "Chip" Abele is asking the city to use its powers of eminent domain to take the Mach property and sell it to him. The city commission, which agreed in a July 2004 development agreement to use eminent domain if necessary, is expected to vote on the issue today.

Mach promises a court battle.

"Basically, I'd really like them to leave me alone," she said, adding that the building provides a nice income for her family with the tenants paying rent and providing all maintenance.

Abele, who said he negotiated with George Mach before his death in April, said Mach demanded an exorbitant, unreasonable price and was "very emotional" and difficult to work with. Abele's $100 million plan calls for approximately 240 condos with 25,000 square feet of retail space on the first floor. During a commission meeting earlier this month, Abele's lawyer, Alan Koslow, blasted the Machs before he realized George Mach was dead.

"For ever and ever, the problem with the city ... to be honest with you is we're letting Mach be the tail that wags the dog," said Koslow, a former city attorney who yields great influence over the commission. "It's enough already. Send him a message: This project is going forward."

Between 1998 and 2002, there were more than 10,000 instances of governments using or threatening eminent domain to transfer property from one private owner to another, said Dana Berliner, a lawyer with the Institute of Justice in Washington, D.C.

"We think its unconstitutional, we think it's un-American and we think it's a tremendous abuse of power," Berliner said.

In a ruling expected later this month, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether a government can use eminent domain to take private property and give it to a developer for the sole purpose of economic development and expanding the tax base. Unless the high court stops such moves, critics say governments could condemn entire neighborhoods of single-family homes to build commercial buildings or upscale condos.

Historically, governments used the power of eminent domain to force people out of their homes or businesses if they stood in the way of projects with a legitimate "public use," such as a road, a school or a post office. Over the years, the Florida legislature began allowing governments to take property if it was blighted, or even in a blighted area the city hoped to redevelop.

Florida's definition of "blight" is so vague it essentially allows governments to declare eminent domain over "anyone's property at anytime anywhere," said Miami lawyer Toby Brigham.

Mach's property is located in such an area: on Harrison Street and South 19th Avenue.

Hollywood Mayor Mara Giulianti said elected officials who want to improve their cities have to forge alliances with private developers.

"Redevelopment is done by the private sector," she said. "The CRA exists for redevelopment ... Our job is to help effectuate that redevelopment."

Giulianti said she supports the seizure of the Mach property because the developer has agreed to save and restore the outside walls of the nearby historic Great Southern Hotel.

"That to me is the public use," she said. "I wouldn't give a nickel if it was just to build a condo. They could leave [the Mach property] and build around it."

The developer actually presented the city with a plan that left the Mach property alone, but the city rejected it because city staff thought the plan would cause parking problems on Harrison Street.

Giulianti said she feels it's time for Mach to accept a fair price for her land and move on. The mayor called Mach an "absentee landlord," even though the Machs worked in the beauty shop for more than 25 years, pay taxes on that and two other properties in the city and raised their family in Hollywood before moving to Aventura.

Frank Schnidman, of FAU's Center for Urban and Environmental Solutions, said he finds that kind of attitude deplorable.

"It's unbelievable how we demonize American citizens because they don't want to sell their property for less than it's really worth," he said.

If Mach fights the eminent domain, a judge will determine if the city is justified in taking the land, and a jury will decide how much the developer will pay. Two appraisals conducted this year for the city valued the property at $850,000 and $725,000.

South Florida Sun-Sentinel: www.sun-sentinel.com