This Bad House

The Nuisance Abatement Board’s war on blight has had some unintended casualties in West Palm Beach — most of them poor

More confounding still are instances when the property owner actually initiates police action. Consider, for example, the boarding house at 117 S. Rosemary Ave., owned by an elderly couple, Jean and R.P. Philips. "This piece of property, being so close to CityPlace, is a major concern to the mayor and Police Department," Officer Brad Emmons told the board in May. Jean Philips, whose husband had died in March, not only had cooperated in the case but had requested police help. The irony that she was now confronted with signing a stipulation giving the NAB jurisdiction over the property was not overlooked by her attorney, William Broome.

"I was here last month and realized the broad range of cooperation you seem to face with owners," Broome said calmly. "Some are very cooperative, and some don't turn out to be. I wanted to be sure that if we wind up back here again because of that property that you remember that we were so cooperative that we started this. The owner's representative actually went to the law-enforcement officers to ask for help with the two guys who were a problem. They arranged controlled drug buys with them which created the three instances that made the nuisance."

On the other hand, in July, when owner James McCarthy objected to a proposed NAB stipulation as the result of undercover drug buys at his apartment building at 318 N. Sapodilla Ave. -- police action with which he cooperated fully -- the case was dropped.

David Terrill
David Terrill

Broome argues that the city's ordinance should be amended to raise the threshold for activating NAB involvement, specifically exempting owner-initiated cases. "It would promote self-policing," he says.

Indeed, some attorneys privately question whether three police-orchestrated buys can even be deemed a bona fide nuisance, given that the problem wouldn't exist without police involvement.

Frankel Enterprises, a Jupiter-based real-estate development company, is about as far removed from the tired rental properties in West Palm Beach as one could imagine. The company's digs are on the fourth floor of the golf clubhouse at Admiral's Cove, a posh development just off Alternate A1A. The ornate clubhouse is bedecked with mahogany woodwork and brass fixtures. Sherry Hyman works full-time as in-house legal counsel for the company, and her large office window overlooks a serene marina and rolling green hills. Hyman is petite, with curly, dark-blond hair. She smiles sparingly and exudes the same aura of authority here as she does chairing the board. Still, sitting behind her desk this day, she seems somewhat uncomfortable answering questions about the NAB, perhaps because the board draws little attention from the local press. (She later denies a request by New Times to send a photographer to an NAB meeting.) At times, she pages through her files while she replies.

Hyman was appointed chairwoman of the NAB in 1996 by Mayor Nancy Graham. The unpaid post must be filled by an attorney, and Hyman, a real-estate lawyer and long-time resident of West Palm Beach, seemed a good fit. The remaining four members -- Dean Marlin, Scott Addlesberger, David Smith, and Emerald Smith, the board's only black member -- are also mayoral appointees. Board members are allowed to serve up to three consecutive two-year terms.

There is no question that parts of the city are "fraught with illegal activities," she says. "Certainly with prostitution, you can drive down the street and see that going on. The drugs? I don't typically... I'm not sure I frequent the neighborhoods at night where these drugs [sales] are taking place, but I certainly know these things are going on."

Hyman bristles at the suggestion that she appears impatient with some property owners during hearings. "I think I have a lot of patience up there," she retorts. "What happens is that property owners try to explain to us that they didn't know what was going on. Our position is that if you own a piece of property in West Palm Beach, you're responsible for making sure it's free of every illegal activity." That begins, she says, with investigating would-be renters. The board's standard stipulation for offending landlords requires that they submit the names of prospective tenants to the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office for a criminal background check, then turn over the results to West Palm Beach police for approval. The stipulation does not indicate the criteria for that approval.

"Some [landlords] buy property in the poorest sections of West Palm Beach, take the rent from these poor people in these dilapidated houses, and they never go there," she says. "You don't have to go through someone's drawers to see if there is drug activity. Often, there are crowds of people gathering outside the property, people driving up, back and forth."

At times, however, even tenants themselves claim they aren't aware of drug sales taking place. The outcome in such cases can be heartbreaking.

In May, police brought before the NAB a case involving what one officer called "probably the worst drug house" in the city at 906 Fourth St. The property consisted of a main house, a small side apartment, and a small cottage in the rear. Police requested that the entire property be vacated and boarded for a year because of ongoing illegal drug sales.

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