Local Florida Agency Sues to Acquire Properties Through Eminent Domain: South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 7/5/05

By Mireidy Fernandez

A Delray Beach, Fla., agency has filed a lawsuit against three Carver Square property owners who have turned down offers to sell their vacant land so the city can build affordable housing in the area.

The eminent domain action, filed Wednesday in Palm Beach County Circuit Court, claims the Community Redevelopment Agency must acquire the seven lots for a redevelopment project.

The CRA has offered to pay owners $33,000 per lot, based on the land's appraised value. None of the owners accepted.

"We've been unable to reach an agreement because they want more money," said Bill Doney, the CRA attorney. "If we can't work it out, we'll try to get a judge to rule that the CRA can get the property."

But the attorney for Harry and Kathleen Webb, who own four of the lots, said his clients don't want to sell. They would like to build houses instead, said Kerry Schwencke, the couple's attorney.

"We have an expert witness that tells us the lots are worth more," he said, noting negotiations continue. The other two lot owners couldn't be reached for comment Thursday, despite attempts by phone.

The vacant land in question is part of a two-block area in the Carver Square neighborhood where the soil is contaminated. For years the site was used as an illegal landfill, upon which homes were built later. The properties are south of West Atlantic Avenue, in the vicinity of the 700 blocks of Southwest Second Terrace and Southwest Second Court, and Southwest Third Street.

Part of the affordable housing initiative includes buying 12 deteriorating homes in Carver Square. The CRA has been negotiating deals for those homes. Out of a total eight vacant lots, the city owns one.

The CRA's legal battle to get the properties came days after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that extends the rights of governments to seize private property, or use eminent domain, for public use to increase an area's tax base or create jobs. But Doney said there's no connection between that high court's ruling and what the CRA is trying to do.

"It's more of a coincidence," Doney said. "The U.S. Supreme Court's decision deals with economic development as opposed to redevelopment. In Delray, this is more of a blighted area where there are problems with the soil."

In fact, the CRA estimates it will spend about $400,000 to excavate and clean up the contaminated soil, dispose of the debris and replace it with fill. In addition, it would cost the agency $50,000-$60,000 to demolish the 12 homes.

CRA officials have maintained all along the goal is to bring affordable or workforce housing to the city, where land values are increasingly high and fewer people who work here can live here. The median price of a home in Palm Beach County is $390,000, said Joe Gray, CRA assistant director.

"We need to have all the property so we can have an affordable housing project there," said Diane Colonna, CRA executive director.

And the need for affordable housing is immense, said Lamar Shuler, a lifelong city resident who serves on the CRA board.

"We just want to get people into homes and into nice developments and make them feel good ... to get them out of the mentality that they have to live in a slum," he said.

Aside from revamping certain pockets or neighborhoods in the city, the CRA has worked on a plan to restore West Atlantic Avenue, where minorities have historically settled. As redevelopment continues west, people will be displaced, Shuler said, so the CRA is looking to alleviate some of the housing crunch when that happens.

"We want to try to have something in the works so that those that will be displaced will have a place to go," Shuler said.

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