Daytona residents' suit tossed: Orlando (FL) Sentinel, 11/17/05

Fearing federal seizure of homes, they challenged a 'blighted' label

By Ludmilla Lelis

A circuit judge has thrown out a lawsuit from a group of Daytona Beach homeowners who challenged what they fear is the first step toward a government seizure of homes in their historic beachside neighborhood.

Circuit Judge J. David Walsh upheld a decision by the Daytona Beach City Commission to call the beachside neighborhood "blighted" by dilapidated buildings, crime and other hazards.

A group of residents had challenged the blight designation, concerned it could empower the city to force them to sell their homes for redevelopment. The area includes 48 homes west of State Road A1A on nearly 7 acres between International Speedway Boulevard and Silver Beach Avenue.

Though city officials don't have immediate plans to condemn any homes in the neighborhood, resident Peter Colt said Wednesday that with the blight designation in place, it could easily happen.

"Nobody's home or property is safe," Colt said. "It just goes to show you how government is out of control, and there's no way around it."

He and his neighbors don't think their beachside community is a slum. The neighborhood has many older homes built during the 1920s, '30s and '40s, some of which were named to the National Registry of Historic Places. Colt lives in a historic bungalow, with neighboring houses that have coquina walls, Spanish mission-style architecture, hardwood floors and mature trees.

Since talk of takeover came to his neighborhood, he has become an activist on private-rights issues and kept a close eye on his neighborhood -- something developers are doing as well, he said.

"There's not a piece of property between the river and the ocean that somebody isn't interested in," he said.

Though the case was argued in March 2004, Walsh issued his decision Nov. 10 and quoted a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that local governments can seize homes and businesses for private development.

In Florida, redevelopment projects require a government agency to declare an area "blighted," giving them legal basis to potentially condemn the land or use other redevelopment powers, such as special tax financing.

Daytona Beach has declared four other neighborhoods blighted, including the Main Street area. That led to the city's ability to force three boardwalk business owners to sell to make way for a $115 million condominium and retail development.

Residents in the beachside neighborhood south of International Speedway started worrying about condemnation when city officials began working on a study of blight along the southern stretch of S.R. A1A and decided to expand the study to include 48 more homes west of the beachside thoroughfare.

Jacksonville attorney Andrew Prince Brigham, whose firm specializes in property-rights cases and represented the neighborhood association, said there had also been concern that several developers would need the land for their projects.

"Subject to the political winds blowing in a different direction, the city comes into this same neighborhood and calls it blighted," he said.

He said the city's blight study involved a drive-through of the neighborhood and didn't include any photographs showing blighted conditions. In the report, none of the homes was found to be dilapidated, and only 14 percent of the homes as deteriorating. Also, the report mentions high crime as a problem yet offers no specifics.

"This blight study is not being driven by blight first," Brigham said, but by private developers who would need to assemble larger tracts for building projects.

The city's report suggests as much, stating: "That sufficient land area is necessary to accommodate contemporary development standards, including off-street parking, stormwater management, landscaping, setbacks, etc."

Daytona Beach Assistant City Attorney Ben Gross said he realized residents feared the potential for a condemnation but that the city hasn't taken such action against these homes.

The city's redevelopment director, Laura Morgan, was not available for comment.

In his ruling, Walsh wrote that although the residents dispute what city officials decided, he couldn't second-guess city officials' opinions.

"Although it is clear there is substantial disagreement as to whether many of the conditions within the area are such as to support a finding of 'blight,' this court is restricted in its power of review," the judge wrote.

Orlando Sentinel: www.orlandosentinel.com

Peter Colt: coltpeter@hotmail.com