Sun Shines On Riviera Beach Once More

The dark cloud of condemnation lingered over the residents of Riviera Beach, Fla., since 2005, when Mayor Michael Brown insisted he would use the city’s eminent domain power to seize property for a private waterfront development. But on March 13, 2007, in an effort to stop those plans, residents voted Brown out of office, making him the latest casualty in the backlash against eminent domain abuse since Kelo. Two weeks later, they reinforced their disapproval of Brown by refusing to elect the slate of three city council candidates he backed.

“People are pinching themselves thinking that Riviera Beach might blossom now,” remarked excited former resident Martha Babson, who was also one of the leading local activists working to stop the abusive plan. “There’s an incredible rush of new blood and new hope.”[1]

The residents, once divided by class and race, united with a 54% majority to elect Thomas A. Masters, a local grassroots activist. A plurality voted for three political neophytes, all opposed to the development plans, to be on the new city council, and the three later won in a run-off election held on March 27.

Also approved were two referenda. The first limited the height of buildings on Singer Island to five stories, while the other limited leases on the island’s development site to 50 years.  The approved charter amendments were a direct reaction against the deal the city made with builder Dan Catalfumo, which included a 50-year lease and plans to build 28-story mixed-use building.[2]

Remarking on the election results, Tony Gigliotti, chairman of the Singer Island Civic Association, told the Palm Beach Post: “Brown was a very divisive figure, and we see progress as more possible now.”[3]

Leaders old and new in the city’s African-American community as well as wealthier condo owners on Singer Island discussed with the new mayor and his council candidates how they would like to see the city increase jobs and redevelop the beach.

Babson said the election brought warring factions together. “Everyone wants the same thing.”

Mayor-elect Masters is promising things will now be different in Riviera Beach. “This wasn’t a white or black issue,” Masters said. “Whether it’s the Ocean Mall on the island or the projects on the mainland, you have to include people in the process, and the previous mayor didn’t do that.”[4]

The high hopes of residents were only further helped by the March 27 run-off election for city council members, when voters chose Master’s allies over those of Brown.  If Brown’s candidates had won, residents feared he might run the city from behind the scenes. 

The people of Riviera Beach have demonstrated to threatened property owners across the nation what is possible when they come together to fight governments willing to take their land telling them it’s for their own good.

“It’s very, very refreshing,” said Babson. “My first thought after hearing the election results was: ‘I could move back now.’”[5]

[1] Telephone interview with Martha Babson, conducted by Chris Grodecki, March 21, 2007.

[2] William Cooper, Jr., “Ocean Mall foiled as voters approve limits,” Palm Beach Post, March 14, 2007.

[3] Quoted in John Lantigua, “At stake in Riviera: Progress – but how, and for whose gain?” Palm Beach Post, March 18, 2007.

[4] Quoted in Lantigua.

[5] Telephone interview with Martha Babson, conducted by Chris Grodecki, March 21, 2007.