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.
ON THE BUBBLE
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.