4/02/2006

Riviera Beach eminent domain case draws national spotlight: Palm Beach (FL)Post, 12/11/05

By Pat Beall

Martha Babson used to enjoy obscurity with a water view. She lived quietly — just Babson, her dog and birds sharing a green cottage perched off the Intracoastal [Waterway in Riviera Beach FL].

Wednesday night, she was featured on FOX News.

Babson's grass-roots fight to stop the planned billion-dollar redevelopment of Riviera Beach has gone prime time, from CNN to MSNBC to the Los Angeles Times.

The hot-button topic is eminent domain and Riviera Beach's right to force people to sell their homes to make way for a massive, privately led redevelopment. If the plan pans out, Babson's neighborhood will sit at the bottom of a Disney-esque harbor for yachts.

Late Wednesday, as Babson stood in her yard, she announced exactly how far she was willing to go to help stop the bulldozers.

"I'm going to wear makeup tonight," said the self-proclaimed "old hippie," who has been known to go straight from gardening to city council meetings.

A few hours later, Babson was at a neighbor's dining room table as a FOX News makeup artist readied her for her close-up. Outside, FOX News star Sean Hannity was readying a live broadcast of the Hannity & Colmes talk show direct from the Riviera Beach back yard of Rene and David Corie.

The Cories had lived in the stucco house for just five years before a Riviera-funded 2001 study included it in an area declared as slum and blight — rendering it a possible bull's-eye for bulldozing.

"I kept asking the community redevelopment agency what they were going to do with our house," says Rene Corie. "We were told a park, maybe a parking lot, then maybe a marina. Then they told me, 'We're going to let the developer decide what to do with your property.'

"That's what really set me off."

Now, Riviera Beach has emerged as the poster child in a national debate over when and how — or if — homes and businesses can be seized to make way for privately funded redevelopment. FOX's Hannity has virtually adopted the issue.

Babson, who has lived in Riviera Beach for 23 years, got there first. Within months of the 2001 study's findings, she did her own parcel-by-parcel analysis. Data was missing from Riviera's analysis, she discovered. "Vacant" parcels had homes. Sturdy houses were declared dilapidated.

But under Florida law, even good homes can be formally labeled blighted and thus targeted for redevelopment — an issue a special state legislative panel is now reviewing. The panel is to suggest reforms by the time the legislature convenes next spring.

"We go knocking door-to-door, asking people, 'Do you know what can happen?' " says Rene Corie. "And they all say, 'Not my house.' "

Plan allows taking property
For months, Riviera Beach City Council Chairwoman Liz Wade has tried to assure residents their properties are not in the cross hairs of condemnation, even if they are in areas declared blighted. A newly tapped master developer has pledged to rehab homes instead of taking them whenever possible.

However, Wade recently changed her stance from never taking homes or businesses through eminent domain to doing so only as a last resort.

That's because Riviera Beach's ambitious vision needs private developers to build the condos, waterfront businesses, housing and stores that can breathe new life into the waterfront city, home to 34,000. And private developments need land.

As a result, Riviera's $2.4 billion redevelopment plan allows for taking private property, and plenty of it. Early estimates were that up to 5,100 people — the population of the area declared blighted — could be displaced. Because the city won't need to take the entire area and because some homes can be rehabbed, Riviera's actual figures will probably wind up much lower, according to one developer on the project: an estimated 1,000 renters and 347 homeowners.

On paper, though, the plan rivals Washington, D.C.'s displacement of more than 5,000 residents in the mid-1950s, still the largest eminent domain action in the country. And this June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Connecticut city could force homeowners to sell their land to make way for economic development.

Florida's rules are different. A city's redevelopment agency cannot take private property solely to create jobs or broaden the tax base. But it can force the sale of private property to cure blight.

Dina Berliner, the property-rights attorney with the Washington-based Institute for Justice who represented homeowners in the Supreme Court case, said Riviera's blight study results were a foregone conclusion.

"Everybody knows the purpose (of blight studies) is to find the area blighted," Berliner says. "They assume no one will really go through the study itself with a fine tooth comb."

Babson did.

Mayor defends study
Marty Murphy, owner of Riviera's Cracker Boy Boat Works, Inc.; Buddy Andre, a Singer Island cafe owner, and Gerald Ward, a consulting engineer, also questioned whether the study might be flawed. Murphy and Andre both had a personal interest: The newly declared area of slum and blight might affect their businesses. The trio scraped together $350 to pay Babson to document suspected mistakes.

Armed with a borrowed digital camera, clipboard, pen and the CRA's colored-coded map, Babson walked street by street, up one block, down the other.

"I did about 250 homes a day," she recalls, "because that was how many pictures the digital camera would hold. It took three weeks."

When she sat down and analyzed the data, she was incredulous.

It looked like "it was done by two guys sitting in a bar and saying, 'let's throw this in,'" Babson says.

She offered to share her findings at a June 2001 city meeting. No one took her up on it. So she wrapped the study in plastic and put it on her kitchen shelf. It gathered dust for a few years. When silverbugs started chewing on her paperwork, she says, "I figured I had better take it out."

Until The Palm Beach Post inquired, she had shown it to no one.

Now Babson's dog-eared report has taken on new significance, given the controversy over Riviera's potential for massive eminent domain.

Among the findings:
  1. The city's blight study reported that the north side of a 10th Street block was vacant. It wasn't. Four- and five-year-old homes dotted the street.
  2. Where some homes had double lots, the second lot was listed as vacant, inflating the number of unused properties.
  3. Homes in good condition were classified as dilapidated and beyond repair.
  4. Hundreds of mobile homes, including some that later weathered Hurricanes Frances, Jeanne and Wilma, automatically were classified as blighted due to undocumented safety problems or criticism such as "a tendency to blow over in storms."
  5. There were no findings of high crime rates or fires, a key justification of blight. City computers were being tweaked to accommodate a new system, according to the city's study, and so the numbers could not be retrieved.
  6. Buildings in good shape were declared "functionally obsolete," defined generally as a structure which, if torn down, could be replaced with something that generated more money.


None of Babson's findings sways Riviera Beach Mayor Michael Brown.

Elected four times — always on a redevelopment platform — Brown is the person mostly closely identified with the redevelopment plan. In recent days, he's twice defended it on TV to FOX News' Sean Hannity.

Back at his Singer Island law office, Brown grows impatient with criticism of the redevelopment. Eminent domain almost always involved poor or black people, he says. "Now, not all of the faces are black. Now, all of a sudden it's tyranny."

Most of the people uprooted are going to be black, though, as the city is mostly black. Many will be among the city's poorest residents. But Brown and other advocates insist those homeowners will be relocated to better, government-subsidized housing that will be built as part of the redevelopment.

As for gaps in the blight study, "If they did 100 houses and got two wrong, what does that mean?" Brown asks. "Seriously, is there any question that this is a blighted area? This is the most impoverished city in the county."

At the time of the 2000 U.S. Census, one out of every four homes in Riviera Beach had three rooms or less, a figure associated with overcrowding. Eighty had no plumbing; 327 had no source of heat at all.

"You drive the mainland, and it's a disgrace," former city council member David Schnyer said recently.

Redevelopment on track
It's a sentiment echoed by Steve Siskind, a respected Miami architect and co-author of the 2001 blight study. "Nobody can deny there is blight in Riviera Beach."

Siskind readily admits there are plenty of individual houses in areas designated as blighted that are fine. But that does not violate state laws governing blight. "Every single building within a 'blighted' area does not have to be blighted," he notes.

That's the problem, say critics of Florida's law: Blight is in the eye of the beholder.

"Given the breadth of the definition as it currently exists, virtually any piece of property in Florida could be declared blighted," says John W. Little III, an attorney specializing in eminent domain with the West Palm Beach firm Brigham Moore.

Florida's criteria for determining blight "are so vague they can mean anything," agrees property-rights attorney Berliner.

For instance, even Florida neighborhoods in good condition qualify as blighted if they are in an area with higher-than-average numbers of police calls, the traffic layout is outdated or their neighbors' properties fall into disrepair.

This raises the hackles of homeowners and property rights advocates. They claim the practical definition of "blight" boils down to this: If a structure can be replaced with something that generates more money, then it's blighted.

"What beachfront in Florida couldn't be knocked down and rebuilt with something that would generate more tax revenue?" Little asks.

Further, if a city or county decides blight exists, then just one of 14 blight criteria have to be met in order for that government's redevelopment agency to exercise eminent domain. The criteria are general: Unsafe and unsanitary conditions are one, so is substandard structures.

It's not clear whether legislative changes to Florida's definition of blight or rules on eminent domain would help opponents of Riviera Beach redevelopment or those whose homes have already been determined to be in a blighted area.

"You can't unring the bell," says city council member and retired Circuit Court Judge Edward Rodgers.

For now, then, redevelopment remains on track.

Her cheeks blushed by a FOX makeup artist, Martha Babson sums up her battle plan for her Hannity & Colmes appearance: "I'm like the Indians, and the white man wants my land."


Palm Beach Post: www.palmbeachpost.com