Jacksonville Beach may be the only city that has tapped a "blight" provision in Florida's redevelopment act to condemn vacant, wooded land and transform it into upscale housing.
Redevelopment projects like Ocean Cay off South Beach Parkway and Rip Tide across the street have been so successful that the city is moving on with the next phase of the South Jacksonville Beach Redevelopment Plan.
Next week, the city is expected to file a condemnation suit to acquire land for a mixed-use project near Marsh Landing Parkway. The city intends to turn the 59 parcels off South Beach Parkway into a commercial and multi-family complex like the Shoppes at Ponte Vedra on Florida A1A.
The government's taking of private land is often challenged when it's done to build roads, schools and other necessary public services. But condemnation is even more politically divisive if it's seen to benefit select groups or private developers, and some experts say that may be why it's so seldom used.
In Florida, the process is not only legal, but encouraged by the state's redevelopment act to rehabilitate rundown or neglected communities through private enterprise. To succeed, Jacksonville Beach will rely on a legal definition of "blight" that doesn't focus on appearance, but the size, layout and ownership of the pre-platted parcels in the subdivision.
State and local planners describe the tactic as innovative, saying it protects the general public from having to bear the costs to upgrade antiquated subdivisions.
"I think we're fairly progressive in what we're doing," said Ray Fisher, chairman of the Jacksonville Beach Community Redevelopment Agency.
But private landowners who lost the battle with the city in 1996 over the Ocean Cay land don't see it that way. The condemnation bars them from developing their lots at their own pace and in their own manner, said Bob Yerkes, an attorney representing some of them in the pending case.
"They were foreclosed from doing that," Yerkes said. "That sticks in the craw of all those owners."
While South Jacksonville Beach may look like an expanse of scrub pine and palmetto brush, on a planning map it appears like a mosaic tile with hundreds of tiny subdivided pieces of land owned by many different people.
Many of the subdivisions were platted and sold off in 50-by-100-foot lots in the 1920s, '30s and '40s. It was the standard size of the time, before amenities such as paved roads, storm and sanitary sewage systems, underground cable television and telephone and electrical wiring were part of the plans.
Today, those utilities are part of the up-front cost of subdivision development. A builder assembling a number of lots pays to install utilities, then bills for those services in the price of the house. But if an area is developed a lot at a time over years, taxpayers end up paying the costs of supplying utilities.
The new mixed-use project raises the same questions as the 1996 case, Yerkes said. In that proceeding, the property owners accused the city of grossly abusing its power of eminent domain, saying the redevelopment didn't serve a public purpose. Their court records allege that the city failed to prove the subdivision was blighted or that it substantially impaired the sound growth of the city.
"It is the attempt to employ a statute which admittedly has never been utilized in this manner which the defendants [property owners] challenge," the court records said.
Unusual, but not new
The approach may be unusual, but it's not new. This is the way the redevelopment act is meant to be used, said Frank Schnidman, the former executive director of the Fort Lauderdale Downtown Development Authority and the author of Planning for Platted Lands: Land Use Remedies for Lot Sale Subdivisions , a 1983 handbook that is considered the bible on old subdivisions.
"It's not novel -- that's the legislative intent for it," Schnidman said. …