Trampled Rights & Broken Promises

How Nice Homes in Murdock Village, Florida Were Taken for a Failed Redevelopment Project

Before Florida’s landmark eminent domain reform passed in 2006, blight in Florida meant whatever the government wanted it to mean. In no place was this abuse of eminent domain more egregious than in the case of Murdock Village in Charlotte County, Fla. As if it were not bad enough that the county condemned hundreds of properties to hand them over to a developer, the project now has stalled and looks like it will never actually happen.

Charlotte County first started buying land in 2003 as part of a plan to redevelop 1,100 acres of mostly undeveloped land. However, the area also contained at least 77 homes, 16 commercial properties, and two churches.[1]

As properties values rose, the county decided it would be too expensive to negotiate with property owners over market value and decided not just to use eminent domain but also to ask a court to allow them to use “quick-take” condemnation, where officials could condemn hundreds of properties in one fell swoop.[2]

The property owners took the county to court, challenging the condemnations. Citing Kelo, the Second District Court of Appeal of Florida affirmed the county’s condemnation, finding that the properties in question did come under the state’s then-vague definition of blight.[3]

According to one of the property owners’ attorneys, the county was itself responsible for the blight.

Ellen Neil told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune: “It is the government’s policy not to maintain roads where people are not living, and then they say, ‘Gotcha. I took your money for 30 years and now I’m going to take your property because the roads are deteriorated.’”[4]

The court’s decision came a few weeks after Florida’s sweeping eminent domain reform bill was made law. Because the project had been on-going, the reform did not apply to Murdock Village.

Nearly two years after the state appeal court decision that allowed Charlotte County to condemn homes and businesses in order to clean up “blight,” the vacant land now really is blighted, and the county is still trying to sell the land to developers.[5] In the past four years, three developers have made offers to the county and then withdrawn.[6]

In 2007, Kitson & Partners, the latest developer to approach county officials, offered to buy 870 acres of the development to create a downtown area. Their offer shrunk down to 40 acres in February 2008 after the housing market went south. A few weeks later, Kitson rescinded its offer altogether.[7]

According to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the project has put Charlotte County $105 million in debt—a debt that increases $16,710 each day.[8]

As the debt mounts, local officials still remain “hopeful” about the project though. County officials now have to decide whether they will divide up the project area into pieces and develop piecemeal or keep it together and hope against hope that one developer will snatch it all up.[9]

Charlotte County finds itself in a similar situation as did it five years ago. They hoped to attract a developer with a huge project area instead of a few more modest project areas, and they had little problem seizing private land in order to make that happen. Apparently eminent domain was not enough to ensure the attractiveness or the success of their grand designs. Years later, hundreds of property owners have moved on, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent, and Charlotte County officials have nothing to show for it all except an ever-increasing debt.

Luckily for Floridians, eminent domain abuse will no longer be part of future development disasters like Murdock Village, since the 2006 reform law and constitutional amendment took Florida from being one of the worst abusers of eminent domain to being one of the best protectors of property owners in the country.

[1] Dana Berliner, Opening the Floodgates: Eminent Domain Abuse in the Post-Kelo World” (Arlington, Va.: Institute for Justice, 2008) p. 27.

[2] James Manfuso, “Lot acquisition on fast track; Judge rules the county can use eminent domain,” Sarasota Herald-Tribune, December 1, 2004 at A1.

[3] Fulmore v. Charlotte County

[4] Devona Walker, “Use of eminent domain upheld; An appeals court sides with Charlotte County in Murdock Village case,” Sarasota Herald-Tribune, June 1, 2006 at BCE1.

[5] Kate Spinner, “Developer’s Murdock plan shrinks from 870 to 40 acres,” Sarasota Herald Tribune, February 27, 2008; Kate Spinner, “County to close roads in Murdock Village, Sarasota Herald Tribune, March 7, 2008.

[6] John Haughey, “Murdock Village at a crossroads,”The Charlotte Sun, April 5, 2008.

[7] Neil Hughes, “Kitson nixes Murdock Village offers,” The Charlotte Sun, March 11, 2008.

[8] Spinner, February 27, 2008.

[9] Haughey.