Court sides with Charlotte in use of eminent domain powers: Sarasota (FL) Herald Tribune, 6/1/06

By Devona Walker

What is very likely the final round in a three-year eminent domain battle between Charlotte County and Murdock Village property owners has been won by the government.

In an opinion filed by the 2nd District Court of Appeal on Wednesday, judges determined that Charlotte County was justified in taking possession of a host of residential properties in the Murdock Village redevelopment area.

The ruling likely clears the remaining hurdles for the county's plans to redevelop Murdock Village.

"It was a major victory for us. The court said there was substantial evidence supporting the findings of blight," said Charlotte County Attorney Janette Knowlton. "This may not have been so much of an obstacle in redeveloping Murdock Village, but this decision erases many unknowns in terms of the timing of all this."

The county has settled with about 2,500 Murdock Village homeowners, leaving about 450 to be compensated. Last week, the county allocated another $11 million for wrapping up final settlements, said Paul Payette, the county's real estate services director.

The property owners who sued the county argued that the state's eminent domain law was vague, subjective and that the term "blighted structure" should apply only to physical buildings and not infrastructure such as roads, pipes and sewers.

"It is the government's policy not to maintain roads where people are not living, and then they say, 'Gotcha. I took your money for 30 years and now I'm going to take your property because the roads are deteriorated,'" said Ellen Neil, the attorney for property owners Donald and Lela Replogle.

"The danger of this decision is obvious. If local officials decide there is a developer they want to do business with, they can manipulate things and manufacture blight," she added.

But a law passed this month prohibits government from taking property by way of eminent domain because, in the view of local officials, it constitutes a slum or blight.

"Things have changed since this happened. If they had changed earlier, this could not have happened," Neil said.

The ruling in favor of Charlotte County thus really sets no precedent because it is superceded by the Legislature's action, said Steven Anderson, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit public sector law firm specializing in eminent domain issues.

"Eminent domain can now only be used for truly public purposes. I mean like a utility, or for roads or a school," Anderson said. "The Florida Legislature realized there were so many abuses going on that they had to spell it out.

"Blight in Florida has meant whatever the government has wanted it to mean."

The appeal court's decision said that some criteria were vaguely written, but that ultimately "blighted structures" was inclusive of infrastructure.

That provided the legal footing to take possession of about 70 or so vacant lots in the Murdock Village redevelopment area based on the fact that they were surrounded by substandard roads.

The ruling is seen as a final blow for about 20 property owners looking to receive more compensation from the county.

Charlotte County already has spent $97 million over three years in its effort to build a downtown at Murdock Village. County officials hope the project, to include a downtown with a crescent-shaped amphitheater, will create new homes and businesses in an area abandoned by General Development Corp. years ago.

Stock Development has been tapped to build the 1,200-acre project and has committed to pay the county $93 million for the land.

Sarasota Herald Tribune: http://www.heraldtribune.com