Institute for Justice Will Represent Riviera Beach Homeowners In Fight Against Eminent Domain Abuse

John Kramer
John Kramer · September 26, 2006

Arlington, Va.—Just as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor warned in her dissent in the Kelo eminent domain case last year, lower-income and minority property owners are being forced off of their land by the government to make way for the rich and politically powerful. In Riviera Beach, Fla., the City is working to take the homes and small businesses of working-class families, who live near the waterfront, to make way for a yacht marina, luxury condominiums, upscale retail stores and hotels for the wealthy.

In a lawsuit filed today, the Institute for Justice, which argued the Kelo case, will represent Riviera Beach property owners who want to protect their rights and save what rightfully belongs to them. Among IJ’s clients is Princess Wells, who, together with her husband, built her home and has lived there for more than 20 years.

“Across America, local governments are using the power of eminent domain to seize private homes, businesses, farms and houses of worship in order to transfer those properties to other private owners for their private use,” warned Bert Gall, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice. “More often than not, governments justify these private-to-private transfers by making bogus ‘blight’ declarations and arguing the new owners might create more jobs and taxes. But if that can be a justification for taking someone’s property, then no home, small business, farm or church will be safe from this kind of government land-grab. We saw this with Susette Kelo’s pink home in New London, Conn., and we are seeing it here in Riviera Beach with Princess Wells’ pink home.”

Riviera Beach, Fla., a working-class, predominantly African-American community of 33,000 on the Atlantic Ocean, has become the new ground zero in the fight against eminent domain abuse. There, Mayor Michael Brown and the City Council have designated more than 800 acres near the waterfront as “blighted” in order to force out home and business owners in favor of a new and glitzy private development project. Riviera Beach has become the most prominent example of the nationwide phenomenon of using government force to replace lower-income families with wealthier ones.

“I built this home, raised my children here and am raising my grandchildren here,” said Wells. “This is my dream home. I never imagined the government that was supposed to protect my home could take it away from me for someone else. Because of eminent domain, we’re left in limbo. The foundation of everything we believed in is crumbling underneath us.”

The Kelo decision outraged almost every American, and nationwide, 30 states passed eminent domain reforms. Florida’s law, one of the nation’s strongest reformed laws, clearly invalidates the City’s eminent domain scheme. But Mayor Brown and the City continue to say that they will use eminent domain and that the new law won’t stop them. That means that many of Riviera Beach’s residents still live under the constant threat of being forced from their homes and businesses—a threat that won’t go away until courts force officials to obey the law.

“Our lawsuit aims to stop cities like Riviera Beach from defying the law and to vindicate the Florida Constitution’s ban on the abuse of eminent domain for private development,” said Dana Berliner, an Institute for Justice senior attorney. “Even though the people of Florida have made sure that their laws do not permit this sort of eminent domain abuse, Mayor Brown and the City Council are willfully ignoring the State’s laws and trying to deprive their own residents of the rights guaranteed to everyone else in the state. A victory in this case will discourage other cities across the country from flouting their state’s post-Kelo eminent domain laws.”

“Riviera Beach can redevelop without using the threat of eminent domain,” said Institute for Justice President Chip Mellor. “What it can’t do is bluff and bully residents in the city and force them off land that is rightfully theirs. We hope the Florida courts will stop this land-grab once and for all.”

In addition to working for legislative reform of eminent domain laws nationwide, the Institute for Justice also set an important precedent on the issue in July of this year with a unanimous Ohio Supreme Court ruling the City of Norwood could not take private property for private development.

The Institute for Justice is ably assisted in the litigation by John Little of Brigham Moore, LLP. In June, Pacific Legal Foundation’s Florida office, known as the Atlantic Center, 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. Two area owners have also brought suit under Florida’s sunshine act.