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CRC In The News

Building boom put squeeze on oldest house

The Miami Herald
November 21, 2004
Frank Grimm

The first great land boom in South Florida had gone bust, and Frank Stranahan couldn't see a way out of his financial abyss. On a bleak day in 1929, not far from his house and trading post, Fort Lauderdale's pioneer merchant tied a rusty metal grate to his leg and flung himself into the New River.

If he had only persevered another 75 years. The riverside property that cost old Frank $1.50 back in the 1890s might have paid off.

The Fort Lauderdale City Commission, after trying to wrest the land around Stranahan's historic house from a condo developer for the last five years, surrendered to a very different economic extreme last week. The value of the property, now occupied by an abandoned supermarket, a parking lot and the occasional vagrant, has soared beyond the comprehension of a local businessman in 1901, when Stranahan built his wood-frame cracker house. And the value has soared nearly beyond belief since 2001, when the city took a doomed eminent-domain case to court to acquire the land as a park.


The city's resources in the case hardly kept up with the boom. A developer who paid $2.5 million for the land in 1999 rejected the city's $8 million offer in 2000. That was just the beginning. ''Things got out of hand. Totally went crazy,'' said Commissioner Dean Trantalis. ``And every year that passed, they got crazier and crazier.''

The city lost the eminent-domain case in 2002 and was facing a trial this week to assess just how much Fort Lauderdale owed the developer for all those unrealized lost profits while the project was hung up in court for four years.

The demise of Frank Stranahan became the City Commission's metaphor for the Stranahan case. Commissioner Cindi Hutchinson said that even if the city prevailed in an appeal of the eminent-domain case -- a not very likely proposition -- the fair market value of the land was probably now beyond $12 million.

She figured the city would need another $5 million to build the park and pay off the legal costs. In 2000, Fort Lauderdale voters had approved an $8 million bond issue to buy the land. That left the city, by Hutchinson's reckoning, $9 million in the hole.

Of course, that would only apply if the city won its appeal.

More likely, the city would lose. And pay those damages for the builder's lost profits. One stunning number kicking around City Hall was a potential $58 million judgment.

The city faced a not-so-remote possibility of a $58 million bill -- and no park. It was the political equivalent of leaping into the river lashed to an iron grate.

''I wanted a park there,'' Trantalis said. ``But at what point does it become irresponsible to continue?''

Trantalis, Hutchinson and Commissioner Carlton Moore voted to settle. And they'll catch hell (particularly Trantalis and Hutchinson, who were elected to get tough with developers) as a 42-story condo tower dwarfs Frank Stranahan's modest old house, the oldest structure in Broward County. Citizens who care about the city will rage about who deserves blame for such an outrage.


Maybe they should blame geography. Douglas T. Kendall, executive director of the Washington-based Community Rights Counsel, a nonprofit public interest law firm that defends local governments against the powerful property rights movement, suggested that the city's eminent-domain case likely would have prevailed in most other states.

But in Florida, which passed aggressive property rights legislation in the mid-1990s, a city could not convince a judge that a park around one of the town's few surviving historic structures qualifies as a ``public necessity.''

''I don't like this. I wanted a park as much as anybody,'' said Hutchinson, who admitted that the political backlash could ``cost me my job.''

Old Frank, anyway, would have understood how fortune can turn along that stretch of the river.


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