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(Carl Cronan is editor of Real EstateFlorida.)

JACKSONVILLE-An eminent domain case brought by port officials against Keystone Coal Co. has resulted in a record-setting, $67-million jury award for the property owner. However, lawyers say it’s uncertain how this verdict will impact other similar court cases pending an appeal.

Brigham Moore LLP says the circuit court ruling against the Jacksonville Port Authority concluded at least two years of legal battling, during which the Florida Legislature tightened state eminent domain laws. A key to the case is that one government entity cannot take property from one private enterprise to turn it over to another, according to Keystone counsel.

“In many ways, litigating with a port is tougher than fighting city hall,” says Andrew Prince Brigham, a trial lawyer with Coral Gables-based Brigham Moore. “Jaxport can take private property through eminent domain, but it does not have the right to take an owner’s bargain or the economic advantage away secured by the owner in free enterprise.”

Fort Myers-based Keystone, owned by third-generation coal man Tom Scholl, secured the company’s 70-acre tract along the St. Johns River near Jacksonville with plans to develop a deep-water coal and bulk cargo terminal. Scholl secured a letter of commitment to buy the property for $8 million in April 2005, after which JaxPort began “slow take” eminent domain proceedings.

JaxPort valued the property at $17 million and had negotiated a long-term land lease with Alabama-based Drummond Coal Co. guaranteeing annual rent of at least $11 million. Keystone’s case regarding the true value of the land was complicated by the fact that there are few comparable sites anywhere along the Gulf or Atlantic coasts throughout the Southeast.

Keystone lawyers also argued that JaxPort declined on previous open-market opportunities to buy the site, which includes a 12-acre landfill, yet became more determined to take it after coastal land became more valuable in recent years. The widening of the Panama Canal has increased demand for port properties.

JaxPort has several weeks to consider its legal options, which may include requesting a new trial or declining to purchase the site, says Nancy Rubin, the port’s communications director. “We definitely think the amount is too high,” she tells GlobeSt.com. “We had hoped to put the property to the best use for the people of Jacksonville.”

The jury’s award came after a two-week trial and is well under Scholl’s opinion of value at $80 million, says Jackson Bowman, a lawyer with Brigham Moore’s St. Petersburg office who also represented Keystone. Furthermore, he tells GlobeSt.com that Scholl still wants to develop a coal/cargo terminal on the site.

“He wants the property, he doesn’t want the money,” Bowman says. “That’s what makes this case unique, to say the least.”

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