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Jax Daily Record Friday, Oct. 18, 200212:00 PM EST

Panel discusses ways to tackle urban blight

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by: Sean McManus

by Sean McManus

Staff Writer

Jacksonville Beach was the focus of a workshop at the Florida Redevelopment Association conference at the Adam’s Mark Hotel Thursday. A panel discussion called Redevelopment Real Estate 101, featuring a city administrator, an eminent domain attorney and a developer outlined the key points of moving a city from blight to prosperity.

The panel included Steve Lindorff, the head of Jacksonville Beach’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), Bill Birchfield, an attorney with Lewis, Longman & Walker and Mitchell Montgomery, president of Montgomery Land Company, a residential housing development firm that developed Ocean Cay, a 200-unit single family home development in Jacksonville Beach. Brenna Durden, also an attorney at Lewis, Longman, moderated the panel.

The three speakers used the hour and a half slot to discuss issues surrounding the condemnation of land and ways that municipalities can use creative tax structures and infrastructure improvements to implement successful redevelopment.

Lindorff showed a power point presentation about the evolution of two areas of Jacksonville Beach — downtown and South Beach.

“You don’t need to incentivize if your city’s house is in order,” said Lindorff, who has served as head of Jacksonville Beach’s planning board and the head of the CRA on and off since 1985. “We tried unsuccessfully to redevelopment Jacksonville Beach all throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s and only recently has it caught on.”

Lindorff explained that after a series of wake-up calls punctuated by an oceanfront bar nicknamed The Blighted Area, City administrators, under the leadership of then-Mayor, Bill Latham, worked with consultants to develop a long-range strategic plan.

“One of the first initiatives was to abolish public condemnation of property in the downtown area,” said Lindorff. “People weren’t spending any money on their property because they were under the threat of eminent domain.”

Instead, the City carved out 12 acres of prime land for public-private development partnerships, instituted facade grants and repaired the City’s infrastructure. Requests for Proposals were then sent out to developers to garner ideas stretching from the oceanfront to the residential communities to the west.

“But what Jacksonville Beach also did was just start throwing parties,” said Lindorff in reference to the myriad festivals, from crawfish to blues, that the area has become known for. “That really put us on the map.”

Lindorff cited the major increase in development, from the J. Johnson Gallery on Fourth Avenue North to the Atlantic and Ocean Club, two popular restaurants that double as bars and night clubs. And Lindorff had the numbers to prove it. The tax assessment for the downtown section of Jacksonville Beach went from $42 million in 1983 to $173 million last year.

Bill Birchfield, an eminent domain lawyer, said that when Jacksonville Beach decided to condemn land toward Ponte Vedra Beach called South Beach for a major residential development, there were over 300 acres involved and over 1,000 different owners, some who lived out of the country.

“Eminent domain laws are like herpes,” joked Birchfield. “There’s no real cure, but there are ways to make it more comfortable and then you just live with it.”

In an effort to instruct city planners and developers on the procedures involved in eminent domain, Birchfield said that the condemning authority must have a serious public purpose for it to be legal.

Birchfield said there is new legislation that makes it harder for a public agency to condemn private property and so cities need to be careful to have their paperwork in place when they decide on that course of action.

“And believe it or not, I actually recommend offering up to 25 percent more for condemned land to the owners just to avoid the ongoing legal fights that occur regarding eminent domain,” said Birchfield, in a comment that incited mutterings from the audience.

In a talk meant to outline the real life problems of redevelopment, developer Mitch Montgomery said that condemnation is the best way for a city to tackle blight.

“The city held a beauty contest to decide which developers should get the contract for Ocean Cay,” said Montgomery, who negotiated the deal that took almost four years to complete. “If I had it to do over again, I would’ve made sure I had enough money to hold out for the entire process.”

Montgomery did make a “reasonable” profit from the Ocean Cay development, which is considered the flagship in igniting further housing projects in the area.

Montgomery also said a strong relationship between the City and the developer is critical to making a project.

“There are a lot of meetings and it lasts a long time,” he said. “But after all, time is money.”

One of the questions from the audience asked how all of this applies to downtown in-fill developments.

“The same principles apply,” said Montgomery. “But in Jacksonville Beach we had a beautiful ocean going for us. Downtown, you might have to give out incentives if you expect people to build next to some pretty unsightly stuff.”

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