Riviera Beach Homeowners Celebrate Victory Over Eminent Domain Abuse

John Kramer
John Kramer · May 10, 2007

Arlington, Va.—The Institute for Justice and property owners from Riviera Beach, Fla., are celebrating the successful conclusion of their legal fight to stop the city’s attempt to take private property through eminent domain for a massive private development project. They will hold a party Saturday, May 12, from 1p.m to 5p.m. in Bicentennial Park in Riviera Beach to celebrate the victory and to mark the one-year anniversary of Florida’s eminent domain reform law.

The Institute for Justice (IJ), which represents home and business owners who filed a lawsuit to prevent the City of Riviera Beach’s abuse of eminent domain, announced that it dismissed the lawsuit this morning because it is now clear that the city cannot legally use eminent domain to take its clients’ homes and businesses for a large-scale private development featuring a yachting complex. Also, city leaders, including the former mayor who supported the project, lost their recent reelection bids. The lawsuit’s goal of stopping eminent domain abuse has been accomplished.

In June of 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in Kelo v. City of New London. In that case, the Court held that local governments may use eminent domain to transfer property from one private owner to another if the new owner promises to make more money with the land. Since that decision, 38 states have passed laws limiting local governments’ power of eminent domain. Florida is one of those states. On May 11 of last year, then-Governor Jeb Bush signed Florida’s law, which is one of the strongest in the country for property owners because it effectively bans the use of eminent domain for private development.

However, one day before the law was signed, then-Mayor Michael Brown and the Riviera Beach City Council entered into a vague agreement with Viking Properties in a brazen attempt to skirt the law so that the city could use eminent domain to seize more than 800 acres of waterfront property (occupied by about 5,100 residents) for a massive private project including a yacht marina, luxury condominiums, and upscale hotels. As a result of that questionable agreement, the working-class, predominantly African-American community of 33,000 became one of the most important battlegrounds in the national fight against eminent domain abuse.

The Institute for Justice, along with its clients, Princess Wells, Michael and Nora Mahoney, and Artis Reaves, filed a lawsuit in order to enforce the new law and remove the specter of eminent domain abuse from the community. Pacific Legal Foundation’s (PLF) Florida office, known as the Atlantic Center, also filed a lawsuit on behalf of local taxpayers seeking to enjoin the city from spending public money in connection with its illegal eminent domain efforts for the purpose of redevelopment.

“Our clients’ right to keep their homes and businesses has been vindicated,” said Bert Gall, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice. “The city has conceded that its questionable agreement with Viking has expired and does not give it a legal basis to use eminent domain in violation of Florida’s new eminent domain law. Furthermore, there has been a significant change in city leadership, including the ouster of Mayor Brown, whose defiance of that law threatened our clients’ homes and businesses.”

“At long last, my neighbors and I have stability because our homes and businesses cannot be taken away and given to a private developer,” said IJ client Princess Wells, who has lived for 20 years in her pink home-painted the same color as the home of Susette Kelo, the woman who lost her fight against eminent domain abuse before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Now, we want to work with the new Mayor and City Council to find ways to redevelop the right way-without using the threat of eminent domain for the benefit of politically connected private developers,” said IJ client Nora Mahoney, a small business owner who owns and runs Dee’s Tees with her husband. “One reason we’re dismissing our lawsuit is because the Mayor and council agreed to talk with us about that.”

“Hopefully, the city will now work with its home and business owners instead of against them,” concluded IJ Senior Attorney Dana Berliner. “The Institute for Justice will continue to pay close attention to what happens in Riviera Beach. If city leaders ever again contemplate violating Florida law against eminent domain abuse, we will once again take them to court.”