IJ property rights client Princess Wells in front of her home.
By Bert Gall
In the wake of the Kelo decision, Justice O’Connor’s words proved to be prophetic, as tax-hungry cities and land-hungry developers went on an eminent domain abuse rampage, often in lower-income and minority communities. Indeed, in the year after Kelo was decided, cities condemned or threatened to condemn almost 6,000 properties for private development.
One city where the floodgates to eminent domain abuse opened in Kelo’s wake was Riviera Beach, Fla., a working-class and predominantly African-American community of more than 33,000 on the Atlantic Ocean. Just as Susette Kelo owned a little pink house near the water, so does IJ client Princess Wells. She and her husband built the home, raised their children in it and have lived there for more than 20 years. Princess also owns a salon/barber shop in Riviera Beach that she operates with the help of her son.
But Princess’ home and her business are under the constant threat of eminent domain. That’s because the City, led by Mayor Michael Brown, has plans to condemn her neighborhood for the benefit of private developers who want to build, among other things, a yacht marina, high-end condominiums and luxury hotels. The City wants to replace its lower-income residents with wealthier ones who can fork over more tax dollars.
The threat of eminent domain impacts Princess’ life every day. For example, she’s lost customers and employees because they believe that her business will eventually be forced to close when the bulldozers come. And the fact that she could lose her home at any time makes it pointless to spend the time or money to undertake several home improvement projects she would like to begin.
This May, Florida enacted one of the strongest eminent domain reform laws in the country—a law that bans the use of eminent domain for private development. The new law should provide complete protection to Princess and her neighbors. But instead of acknowledging that it is bound by the new law, the City claims that, by signing a questionable agreement with the developer the day before the Governor signed the new law, it is free to disregard the law’s protections for home and business owners.
Faced with the City’s attempt to flout the law, Princess Wells joined with business owners Michael and Nora Mahoney, homeowner Artis Reaves and IJ to file a lawsuit aimed at removing the cloud of eminent domain that threatens Riviera Beach.
In response to our lawsuit, some City officials have already discussed passing a resolution saying that the City will obey the new law. But others, including the Mayor and the City’s developer, have opposed such a resolution. Until the City passes legislation that officially takes eminent domain off the table, we will fight to protect our clients and their neighbors so that they can be secure in the homes and businesses that are rightfully theirs.
Bert Gall is an IJ senior attorney.