Florida City Plans to Drive 6,000 Citizens from Their Homes

Published February 1, 2006

“It can’t happen here” was the prevailing initial response of Florida’s public officials after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June 2005 in Kelo v. City of New London. The state’s attorney general even issued a statement evidently intended to calm Floridians’ fears that their local governments suddenly had carte blanche authority to seize private property.

Floridians’ initial complacency has been swept away, however, by events in the southeast Florida community of Riviera Beach, now the site of one of the country’s biggest eminent domain disputes since the 1950s. If the city is allowed to carry out its plans, as many as 6,000 residents could be displaced.

Proponents of the $2.4 billion Riviera Beach redevelopment plan cite promised benefits of new jobs and a revitalized economy. Outraged residents whose homes are subject to condemnation under the plan have pointed out what they see as major flaws in the city’s efforts to justify its use of eminent domain.

Critics Cite Bogus Blight

Homeowner Martha Babson was among those alarmed by the city’s 2001 study declaring her neighborhood blighted. It’s a designation that–under Florida law–gives local government the authority to use eminent domain. So Babson decided to conduct her own study. Walking the entire 400-acre area that is marked for redevelopment, she found numerous inconsistencies between the study’s findings and the reality on the ground.

Babson’s discovery garnered little attention for several years, until the Palm Beach Post reported some of her findings last November. Among them, Babson found homes where the city’s study had listed vacant lots. She also found structures in good condition that the city’s study had listed as dilapidated and beyond repair.

According to Dana Berliner of the Institute for Justice, which defended the homeowners in the Kelo case, such bogus blight studies are common. She told the Post for a December 11, 2005 article, “Everybody knows the purpose [of blight studies] is to find the area blighted. They assume no one will really go through the study itself with a fine-tooth comb.”

Plan Grabs National Attention

When it became obvious Florida’s property owners weren’t immune to the impact of the Kelo ruling, the Florida House appointed a special committee on property rights three weeks after the ruling. In its early discussions the committee has focused on the issues surrounding blight criteria. This spring the committee is expected to recommend narrowing the criteria that allow for the use of eminent domain.

In the meantime, Babson and her fellow homeowners continue to fight Riviera Beach’s redevelopment. One of the plan’s principal advocates, Riviera Beach Mayor Michael D. Brown, warns that without redevelopment, his city will die. The case has received national attention.

“We’re definitely in Tiananmen Square: one little guy in front of all those tanks,” Babson told a Los Angeles Times reporter for a December 7 story. “We’ve slowed them down, but we haven’t stopped them.”

Matt Warner ([email protected]) is director of public affairs for The James Madison Institute, a nonpartisan policy center in Tallahassee, Florida.