Bleeped Podcast: Mar-a-Lago neighbor pits eminent domain law against city’s tax base

Published on June 25, 2019

Despite being only eight miles from Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Largo resort, Riviera Beach is the poorest city in Palm Beach County, Florida. Crime is high, incomes are comparatively low, and most buildings could use a fresh coat of paint.

But that doesn’t mean Riviera Beach doesn’t have its charm. Many families have lived there for generations. In the 19th century, immigrants from the Bahamas — called Conchs — recognized the potential of Riviera Beach’s pristine waterfront and settled in the area. They formed a small fishing village and used their knowledge of boat building to construct beautiful one-story houses designed to allow air to circulate during the hot summers. These houses are eponymously known as Conch houses — one of Florida’s few examples of vernacular architecture.

By the 1990s, the waterfront neighborhood had fallen into decay. Most outsiders considered Riviera Beach a dangerous place to live, but, to the residents, Riviera Beach was home. The city had the bones of a beautiful waterfront historic district and just needed some tender loving care to reach its potential. A few residents formed a local chapter of a non-profit group called Main Street America that began working alongside local small businesses to improve the downtown. Slowly, they made progress, but when they asked the city for permits to make large improvements, permits were not forthcoming. Riviera Beach had other plans.

Seriously, “blighted” is a real designation

In the early 2000s, the city designated the entire waterfront as “blighted” and announced plans to use eminent domain to seize all the houses — including the remaining Conch houses — and hand them over to private developers. In turn, the developers intended to build a marina for wealthy people’s yachts and luxury condominiums. Then-Mayor Michael Brown justified the eminent domain seizure as a way to “improve the city’s tax base.”

Not without a fight

But 5,500 people lived in those homes, and they would not hand them over without a fight. They filed three separate lawsuits to try to stop the eminent domain, and in response, the city retaliated. In a closed-door City Council meeting, the council discussed hiring private investigators to tail outspoken residents and asking the police to give them a hard time. A transcriptionist documented this conversation, and the city later made it public.

Despite the retaliation, none of the residents backed down. Riviera Beach didn’t want to deal with three expensive lawsuits, so they canceled the redevelopment plan. The Conch houses were saved, at least for a little while.

A few of the private developers (who would have been the beneficiaries of the eminent domain seizures) didn’t scrap their plans entirely. They made offers to buy some of the houses at inflated prices, and many homeowners caved.

“It was like the dam broke and everybody sold within days,” says former resident Martha Babson. “The conch houses have all been ripped down.”

You can hear a full story about Riviera Beach’s redevelopment plan on the first episode of Bleeped, a podcast about censorship and the people who stand up to it.

Matthew Billy is a Columnist at Grit Daily. He is an award-winning podcaster in radio/podcasting since 2003 -- first at 90.7 WFUV with iconic on-air personalities Vin Scelsa and Pete Fornatale, and then at Sirius XM Satellite Radio. In 2016 his latest podcast, Between the Liner Notes, won the Newhouse School of Public Communications' Mirror Award for Best Single Story – Radio, Television, Cable or Online Broadcast Media for its episode about the founding of MTV.

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