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Florida boatyard awaits domain decision

Cracker Boy Boat Works would be eliminated as part of a $1.5 billion redevelopment project

Cracker Boy Boat Works would be eliminated as part of a $1.5 billion redevelopment project

After last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding a city’s right to condemn people’s homes and businesses to make way for economic development, Martin Murphy has one last hope for saving his Riviera Beach, Fla., boatyard from the wrecker’s ball.

He is watching closely as Congress and the Florida legislature debate whether to amend eminent domain laws that could impose some restraints on an urban renewal project that envisions a hotel and convention center where Murphy services 1,200 boats a month in his Cracker Boy Boat Works.

In the wake of the Supreme Court decision, federal and state lawmakers are considering bills to curb cities’ rights of eminent domain. Murphy is hoping one of those laws will be enacted, and give his boatyard a reprieve. He says hearings on the Florida bill have drawn overflow crowds.

“I was standing outside in the rain freezing. I couldn’t even get inside,” he says.

Murphy says there is some tough opposition to the bills. The League of Cities is four-square against it. A coalition of property rights groups is lobbying for it.

In Kelo vs. City of New London, Conn., the high court ruled it was not unconstitutional for the city of New London to seize homes and property and transfer the land to private developers. The majority said the property’s condemnation under laws of eminent domain and the city’s plans for it would boost an ailing local economy and generate more taxes, and that is a public benefit.

The decision has cleared the way for the City of Riviera Beach to proceed with condemnation of Murphy’s Cracker Boy Boat Works. The largest boatyard in Palm BeachCounty, the family-owned business has operated in the county since 1946, and includes the boatyard and a marine contracting firm. The 10-acre yard is one of the area’s few do-it-yourself facilities, and provides work for 35 subcontractors. Located next to the Port of Palm Beach, it is also one of the few South Florida yards that can haul deepwater vessels — up to 15-foot draft. Murphy says Cracker Boy can service 140 boats at a time and hauls 1,200 a year, all of which suggests to him that the yard is an economic asset to the city and the region.

Yet Cracker Boy is on a list of properties that stand to be condemned to make way for one of the most ambitious urban renewal projects in the country — a $1.5 billion redevelopment encompassing 858 acres along Riviera Beach’s downtown waterfront. Riviera Beach — a blue-collar town with a lot of blight, a declining housing market, relatively high crime and unemployment rates and a moribund economy — hopes to jump-start its future by creating an upscale downtown and waterfront. The new Riviera Beach will have an aquarium and waterfront boardwalk, chic retail shops, restaurants and businesses, luxury homes, apartments and condominiums, and 1,500 new slips along the Intracoastal Waterway. The plan envisions dredging a harbor as the centerpiece of the development and moving U.S. 1 some 500 feet west to make way for it.

Most of the development will be “high-end,” designed to attract city residents and visitors who can afford to live or vacation on the water or the beach, and own or play on luxury yachts. “Riviera Beach, to a large extent, has been a diamond in the rough,” says Floyd Johnson, executive director of the Riviera Beach Community Redevelopment Authority. Its beaches, docks and waterfront have been underused. If the development takes off, it should bring jobs and new economic vitality to Riviera Beach, he says. “This is a classic example of a rising tide that would definitely raise all ships,” says Johnson. “I think we’re right on the cusp of things getting a lot better in Riviera Beach.”

The price of that development will be some 1,700 homes and apartments, 5,100 residents displaced and 300 business forced to relocate. Murphy says there is no place for Cracker Boy to relocate.

“We have nowhere to go. There is no more working waterfront,” he says. Part of the redevelopment area will be designated marine commercial, but he says it can’t accommodate a big yard like his. Other yards have been given room to expand, but he says they are all big-yacht yards and won’t be able to handle another 1,200 boats a month. “We do a third of the Palm Beach [yacht] service work,” he says. Two other yards like his operate in Palm BeachCounty, but both are in negotiations with developers and could be sold soon, he says.

“The city of Riviera Beach is an old, old community,” Murphy says. “I’m a 100 percent for redevelopment of Riviera Beach if they’d just take our portion of property out of the plan.” He says the yard is not blighted — it’s a boatyard — and there’s no point in building 1,500 more slips in Riviera Beach if there’s no place to service them.

The Kelo case, decided in June, pitted seven home and rental property owners against the city of New London, which had condemned their properties to redevelop 90 acres along the Thames River next to pharmaceutical giant Pfizer’s new global research facility and Fort Trumbull State Park. The redevelopment plan envisions a waterfront hotel and conference center, a marina, office space and 80 residential properties. The area is not by most definitions blighted, but New London says the project will yield 1,000 new jobs, increase the city’s tax base and act as a catalyst for revitalizing the economically ailing city.

Susette Kelo and other New London homeowners challenged New London’s right to force them off their property, even though they would be compensated for their loss.

“To petitioners, like most Americans, their homes are their castles,” wrote attorney Scott Bullock, of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice, in the homeowners’ Supreme Court brief. “In this case, they face the loss of the homes and neighbors they cherish through the use of eminent domain not for a traditional public use, such as a road or public building, nor even for the removal of blight. Rather, respondents — a local government and a private development corporation — seek to take petitioners’ 15 homes to turn them over to other private parties in the hope that the City may benefit from whatever trickle-down effects those new businesses produce.”

The Constitution’s Fifth Amendment allows government to take private property for public use and requires just compensation. The Kelo case asked whether a city has overstepped its powers under the Fifth Amendment by extending “public use” to economic development.

The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, said, “No, it hasn’t overstepped its powers.”

Florida Senate Bill 0008 would reverse that decision’s effect in Florida by prohibiting governments from taking private property through eminent domain if the redevelopment benefits a private party; if the purpose is economic development other than community redevelopment; or if the purpose is to raise money for a public project. It specifically authorizes taking property for transportation, water supply, wastewater, flood control, drainage, utility or energy transmission projects, convention centers, stadiums, arenas, auditoriums, and public infrastructure.

The Federal Private Property Rights Protection Act of 2005 — a bill co-sponsored by 98 members of Congress — would prevent states and communities that receive federal economic development grants to use eminent domain to develop private businesses on condemned land.

While lawmakers ponder these changes, Murphy waits.

“Any day I can get something in the mail and get kicked out,” he says.

The Kelo case comes at a time when Florida’s marine industry has been raising the alarm about the loss of working waterfront — public docks and boatyards — to condominiums and other high-end development.