Four property owners sued the city of Riviera Beach on Tuesday to stop the government from razing their properties for a $2.4 billion waterfront redevelopment project, which they say blatantly violates Florida's eminent domain laws.
The Institute for Justice, which argued against redevelopment in a Connecticut city in a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year, filed the 48-page lawsuit in Palm Beach County circuit court on behalf of the four individuals. Hundreds of residents could be displaced if the project goes through.
"We are seeing this around the country," said Bert Gall, a senior attorney for the institute. "It's really important that cities who are engaged in illegal land grabs know they have to obey the law."
The Supreme Court decision allowed the city of New London, Conn., to take private property for economic development that would result in higher tax proceeds - a public benefit in the court's view. The decision reverberated around the country, and 30 states, including Florida, revised their laws in an attempt to prevent takings for economic development.
Despite the new Florida laws passed earlier this year, Riviera Beach Mayor Michael D. Brown is pressing forward with plans to develop a marina, restaurants, hotels and luxury condominiums. Brown said redevelopment is crucial to resurrect "a city that is strife with unemployment, strife with crime, strife with all the evils and misfortunes of urban communities across this country."
Brown lashed out at the Institute for Justice.
"If they were about justice, they would be down here assisting us in trying to help rescue the community," he said.
Princess Wells, one of the residents named in the lawsuit, disagrees with Brown's rationale.
"Does better mean when you have more money you're better than me when I don't have as much money?" said Wells, who built her house with her husband 20 years ago and is waiting to make hurricane repairs. "You go home every day and you don't know whether you are going to be able to keep your house."
The Institute for Justice said the city has no legal standing against a Florida law that is now one of the strongest in the country. But Brown said the city's development agreement with Viking Inlet Harbor Properties was already in place before the law, and tax revenue projections were already made. The city unsuccessfully lobbied for exemptions during this year's legislative session.
A day before Gov. Jeb Bush signed the new restrictive law in May, Brown called a special meeting so the city and the developer could sign an agreement that included the use of eminent domain powers. Two residents sued the city, arguing the contract should be nullified because the meeting violated Sunshine Laws requiring advance notice for public meetings.
Another pair of residents sued the city in June, arguing that taxpayer money shouldn't be used for eminent domain proceedings.
Bradenton FL Herald: http://www.bradenton.com