City avoids showdown over development plan

The proposal would have displaced thousands of people.

Published May 11, 2007

RIVIERA BEACH - Two national advocacy groups Thursday dropped lawsuits aimed at stopping one of the nation's largest eminent domain projects after this downtrodden city said it would not force residents from their homes.

The move comes one year after Florida enacted a law that prohibits the use of eminent domain for private development.

"The fact that Riviera Beach has backed down and decided not to use eminent domain is the first real evidence that the new state law has teeth, " said Steven Geoffrey Gieseler, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, which sued the city on behalf of residents fighting to stay in their homes.

The Arlington, Va., Institute for Justice also dropped its lawsuit against the city on behalf of residents.

"Our clients' right to keep their homes and businesses has been vindicated, " said Bert Gall, a senior attorney with the group.

Even after the state law was enacted, then-Mayor Michael Brown vowed to fight it in court and proceed with the $2.4-billion redevelopment project that could have displaced several thousand people.

Brown heralded the project as a way to revamp one of Palm Beach County's poorest cities with a new marina district, high-end condominiums, houses, shops, offices and yacht slips. But he was ousted from office in March, and a new City Council and mayor pledged to abide by state law.

Governments have historically used eminent domain to forcibly buy property to build public facilities like schools or roads. But after a 2005 Supreme Court ruling that gave local governments the right to seize properties for private development to increase tax bases, cities across the country began projects much like Riviera Beach's plan.

In response, more than 30 states, including Florida, passed laws restricting such eminent domain seizures.

Floyd Johnson, executive director of Riviera Beach's redevelopment agency, said Thursday the entire project would likely be scaled back and that no residents would be forced from their homes.

Meanwhile, the developers of the project, Viking Inlet Harbor Properties, a joint venture between Viking Yacht Co. and resort-development firm Portfolio Group, have already spent more than $50 million acquiring property in the redevelopment zone.

It was not immediately clear how the company would proceed.