This Bad House

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

Arlene Kutera, a woman who lived close to the Kwik Stop, testified that the convenience store was needed. "If it's a convenience for the people that live in that neighborhood, why should it be shut down?" Kutera asked. "They can tell you they came by and they were solicited, but you'd better believe they don't come around that area. If they have businesses in the day, they are shut after 5 and 6 o'clock. They wouldn't be caught dead up there. It's like they're trying to say, keep the people on that side where they don't have to come over to the Northwood side. That way, we don't have to worry about those blacks entering into our Northwood community, breaking into our houses."

Tinson recalls the store as being a problem. "I used to go to the restaurant that was by it, and cars were broken into on the street," he says. "People were hailing you down as you went by for drugs and prostitution. It was trashy, very rundown."

Morell believed that his clients had a high probability of winning in court. Two NAB cases were then awaiting decisions by the Florida Supreme Court, one of which was similar to the Kwik Stop case. In 1993, the NAB in St. Petersburg had closed an apartment building because of drug-dealing by tenants. Owner Joseph Kablinger sued, arguing that he had nothing to do with the illegal activity and should be compensated for the closure. A jury agreed, as did the Second District Court of Appeal after the city appealed. The city appealed the case again to the Florida Supreme Court, which in July affirmed the lower-court decision. The justices concluded that "the St. Petersburg NAB closed the apartment complex solely on a finding that the apartment had been the site of cocaine sales on more than two occasions" and that "there was not extensive record indicating that the drug activity had become an inseparable part of the operation of the apartment complex." Kablinger must be compensated, the court ordered.

In a companion case reviewed at the same time, however, the Florida Supreme Court upheld a Third District Court of Appeal decision that the owner of the Stardust Motel in Miami should not be compensated for an NAB closure in 1998. In that case, the illegal activity had become "inextricably intertwined" with the operation of the motel, the justices wrote.

Although the Kablinger decision certainly shores up legal defense for some property owners, it does nothing for poor tenants and families entangled in uglier nuisance cases.

Morell dropped the federal case this summer when the NAB agreed to let the new owners remove the boards after making improvements, such as painting the exterior and interior of the store, landscaping, removing the Kwik Stop sign and pole, and taking down posters and signs from the windows. The NAB's Hyman defends such aesthetic requirements, claiming they were intrinsic to the business. "And that business was so inextricably intertwined with [illegal activities] that we had to show everyone that it's not business as usual anymore."

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