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A local activist is suing the city for selling land to Orlando City Soccer Club, officials say she has no standing



Hours after Orlando's local officials applauded themselves for a deal that would sell almost 12 acres in Parramore to Orlando City Soccer Club for $18 million, several news segments hit the airwaves with the latest scoop – the city was being sued.

Community activist Lawanna Gelzer and her mother, Betty Gelzer, filed a complaint for injunctive relief against Orlando, alleging the city was violating Florida laws governing eminent domain, which is the power governments have to take private property for public use. The plaintiffs also argue that construction of the $155 million stadium has financially affected properties Betty Gelzer owns.

"Plaintiffs named is, and at all times mentioned in this Complaint was, engaged in the activity of protecting the local community of Paramour [sic] and was against the development of the property from the onset," the complaint says. "Unless and until enjoined by order of this court, there will be irreparable injury to the residents and businesses, both financially and under the fairness of the legal system. It would be an unjust sale and misuse of state power of eminent domain."

From the onset, it sounds like a David-versus-Goliath situation, but a closer look at eminent domain and the lawsuit reveals the issue is more complex.

Roads, bridges, public buildings, railroad systems and even water utilities have used the power of eminent domain in this country, says University of Florida law professor Michael Wolf. The powers of eminent domain arise from the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which says "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." Wolf says eminent domain began getting bad publicity when the U.S. Supreme Court took on Kelo v. City of New London. In the 2005 case, homeowners fought against the Connecticut city of New London, which used eminent domain to seize private homes for a private development that included a research facility for the pharmaceutical company Pfizer. The city argued the development would create jobs, increase tax revenue and reinvigorate the economically depressed community. In a 5-4 decision, Supreme Court justices agreed with the city, saying that governments that use their eminent domain power to seize private property for private economic development qualify under public use.

The decision proved controversial enough that numerous states enacted stricter laws on the use of eminent domain. In fact, Florida's rules on eminent domain changed more drastically than in any other state, Wolf says. Local governments can't use eminent domain to prevent or eliminate a blighted area or transfer property to private developers unless a three-fifths majority in both the Florida House and Senate approve an exemption. If the local government no longer needs the land, it has to offer to sell it back to its previous owners, and if they refuse, the government can sell it through a competitive bidding process after 10 years.

Wolf says the general knee-jerk reaction to eminent domain is negative because of past abuses and the fact that it has targeted communities of color and poor areas, particularly the use of it in federal highway construction. Some people might see the public benefit of keeping a sports team in the city and using eminent domain to build facilities, while others may not.

"But it's also been used in positive ways," he says. "A lot of people opposed to eminent domain, who think it's antithetical to a free society, I don't think are aware that public utilities, gas and oil pipelines all use it."

Back when Orlando was making national headlines for using eminent domain to seize the Faith Deliverance Temple at 625 W. Church St., it also used the power of eminent domain on the two properties on either side of the church. The city had bought large swaths of property along West Central Boulevard, but some owners on West Church Street refused to budge.

The larger property, known as Parcel 101 and valued at $2.93 million, had a warehouse sitting on the parcel and was owned by Northbrook Properties Inc. Parcel 102, the smaller property valued at $314,400, belonged to Ha Vong and at one point had a Chinese restaurant. After failed negotiations with Northbrook and Vong, the city used eminent domain, arguing that the city-owned stadium would be leased to the Lions and provides the public "a unique forum for sports, recreational, educational and entertainment activities," according to Orange County court documents.

A judge agreed and allowed the city to take parcels in January 2014, but after funding for the stadium was delayed by the Florida Legislature, Orlando City Soccer Club owners decided last May to privately finance the construction of the stadium, meaning they would own and operate it. The city and Northbrook agreed to vacate the eminent-domain order, and in July 2015, Parcel 101 was sold to the soccer club for $6 million.

In her lawsuit, Gelzer argues the city had to wait 10 years before it sold all the property it had acquired to the soccer club because Parcel 101 and 102 were acquired through eminent domain. City spokesperson Cassandra Lafser says the land city commissioners agreed to sell to the soccer club didn't include those two parcels, and therefore the statute Gelzer cites is inapplicable.

Stumpy Harris, an Orlando lawyer who specializes in eminent domain, says in a hypothetical situation, the previous owner of a condemned and seized property could have standing to sue if the city sold the property directly to a private developer or if the city purchased the property under the threat of condemnation and then sold it to a developer.

In response to the city's comments, Gelzer says the city is trying to discredit her and redirect from the larger picture.

"I speak for a lot of people who feel like they don't have a voice," she says. "They have a double standard when it comes to citizens in Parramore. ... You think you can give a community a couple of soccer balls and we're supposed to be happy. Why do they get to break the law?"

Lafser says the city was finally served Gelzer's lawsuit on Wednesday and their legal department has begun preparing a response.


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