Demolition to widen Interstate 95 on Jacksonville’s Southside is feeding a court battle between the state and a hard-pressed church congregation — over what’s not being torn down.


Glorious Bethlehem Temple, a Pentecostal church near Philips Highway, was slated to be bought and bulldozed by the Florida Department of Transportation along with nearly two dozen houses in an area where a drainage pond was planned for the state’s Overland Bridge replacement project to rebuild miles of I-95.

After the church balked at the state’s offer for its 1954-vintage building, saying it couldn’t build a replacement church for the $391,070 that was on the table, the state said it would rework the pond and leave the church where it was, ringed by empty, overgrown lots where homes were bulldozed.

So the church is suing, figuring members already spent years planning, buying land and making arrangements to move somewhere with neighbors again.

“It’s been a long haul,” said Donald Richardson, pastor of the 85-member church on Wister Street two lots from the interstate. “It’s been four long, sometimes grueling years. … We didn’t come this far to not see this thing all the way through.”

The highway project leaves the church isolated, and the state should pay to make up for that, a church lawyer said.

“By intention, FDOT means to take the neighborhood, but leave the church,” attorney Andrew Prince Brigham wrote when he filed the lawsuit. He argued the state was using a “consummate bully tactic” to push the church to sell at such a low price it violated the church’s property rights.

A Jacksonville jury should decide that, a judge ruled this month, denying state requests first to dismiss the lawsuit completely, then to move the case to a court in Tallahassee.

“While it does not appear often, state courts in and outside of Florida have accepted this cause of action,” Circuit Judge Virginia Norton wrote in her ruling, and said the issues at stake should be decided close to home.

A DOT spokesman said his agency isn’t trying to bully anyone, and tried to find a solution that would serve the state and the church.

“I empathize with the church congregation, and all the residents being impacted by the construction,” the spokesman, Ron Tittle, said by email. “Florida Department of Transportation was able to purchase the right of way from residents in the area and offered a fair market value for the church property, which was declined. Florida Department of Transportation then decided to adjust construction plans because we also want to be the best stewards of taxpayer dollars we can.” Overall, the state is spending about $60 million buying land for the Overland Bridge work.

Tittle declined to discuss details of the state’s offers to landowners because of the ongoing lawsuit.

Richardson, who bought a 1.2-acre lot from HabiJax and had it rezoned for a church, said he tried to strike a fair deal, too.

During community meetings about taking land for the highway, he said, DOT representatives — who used the church as their meeting hall — told residents the state would pay fair prices to relocate people. But he said the state turned down the first price his contractor offered for a replacement building, then the second price for a smaller building, then the real bottom-line price.

Richardson said the contractor suggested one cost cut after another — use gravel instead of asphalt in the parking lot; don’t install sprinklers for the lawn; wire the building, but only install fixtures where they’re really, really needed — but the price was still $125,000 more than the state would agree to.

The state chose 23 houses in one cluster to demolish, and by fall of 2012 it owned buildings on both sides and in front of the church. While the state chose not to take vacant land from an Assembly of God congregation elsewhere along the project path, the state sued that fall to take Glorious Bethlehem’s sanctuary and three lots used for parking by eminent domain.

But the next spring, it declared an impasse in price negotiations and, that same day, dropped the condemnation suit. Then the state invited the church to talk about a “voluntary” sale, without the rules for condemnation that are supposed to guarantee a fair price, according to letters Brigham sent last year to Mayor Alvin Brown and Gov. Rick Scott.

“The church is left twisting in the wind and intentionally put in the position to beg that FDOT acquire its property,” Brigham wrote.

The church sued the state in September, and Norton’s ruling this month could mean its argument that the state misused its power — the formal term is “oppressive pre-condemnation conduct” — will be heard in a public trial.


Steve Patterson: (904) 359-4263