Firm criticized for threatening eminent domain: Camden (NJ) Courier-Post, 9/10/05

By Wilford S Shamlin

[Westville] Borough officials are demanding that a company involved with a redevelopment project apologize to residents after it mailed letters threatening to condemn their homes to make way for construction of townhouses and retail stores.

Borough officials have said for months that use of eminent domain to seize property was the last resort in negotiations with homeowners who live in the redevelopment zone along Big Timber Creek.

However, residents said that they were angered by the tone of the two-page letter, signed by the president of Rhoads Inc., James C. Rhoads. The letter, dated Aug. 9, ended with an implied threat that the residents had to get back to the company within 14 days or the matter would be referred back to the borough to begin condemnation proceedings.

Borough Solicitor Robert P. Becker Jr. fired off an Aug. 15 letter saying the content of the letters from Rhoads Inc. are "unacceptable to the borough."

Rhoads Inc., of Voorhees, was hired by Fieldstone Associates, the Doylestown, Pa., firm charged with overseeing the redevelopment project. Arthur Corsini, principal for Fieldstone Associates, refused an interview Friday.

The letter also upset the mayor and council because they said they were not consulted before it was mailed, said Borough Administrator William Bittner Jr.

During an information session in January, Fieldstone unveiled a $40 million plan for a restaurant, 5,000 to 15,000 square feet of commercial space along Delsea Drive and Broadway, plus 78 townhouses with outdoor balconies.

The major concern expressed by residents was the possibility of losing their homes through condemnation proceedings if they refuse to sell.

In some cases, it could mean losing a business, too — as it does for Lou Achilles, 65, and his wife, Delores, 63, and two sons, Al and Henry, who all manage Grabbe's Seafood Restaurant on Delsea Drive.

Their property — which includes a wholesale seafood store and a house — falls within the redevelopment zone. But they're not interested in selling or moving their third-generation business, which has been operating since 1933.

"There's no reason to move," Delores Achilles said. "We're not for sale."

The Achilles said they were given a low-ball figure, which they said they were advised by an attorney not to reveal, to sell their property. Lou Achilles called the offer an "insult."

"You can't replace what we have with what they want to give us," said Al Achilles. "Not even close."

Delores Achilles said that the redevelopment company has disrupted their lives.

They worry constantly whether the property can be seized.

"This is my home and my life. How would you feel?" she said. "I don't want to leave."

Fran Williams, 65, who lives on South Timber Avenue, said: "I'm not happy about the price that they quoted us. It is kind of ridiculous. Nobody's place is up for sale and they want to give us less than fair market value."

Barbara Wassel, 63, of Cherry Hill, runs Westcreek Marina on South Timber Avenue for 22 years. She doesn't want to sell her spot by the Big Timber Creek either.

"What they want to take from me, you can't replace," she said, also not quoting the offer. Wassel added she worried that other areas could be redeveloped, especially if the current redevelopment project turns out successful.

"It'll never stop," said Charles Hepp, another South Timber Avenue resident. Reach

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