By Porus P. Cooper
A long-running dispute in Haddon Township involving the threatened use of eminent domain for a redevelopment project took an unexpected and bitter turn this week with the death of a key opponent.
Patrick W. Fritzsche, 53, owner of Pat's Pub in Westmont, died Sunday, four days after he made an emotional appearance before the Board of Commissioners to ask why health inspectors and police had shown up at his bar to investigate anonymous complaints after years of giving it a clean bill of health.
He alleged he was being harassed for resisting pressure to sell his property to the township and make way for a large housing and shopping development along Haddon Avenue, the town's main street.
The project is centered on DyDee Diaper Service Inc., a defunct diaper-laundering site, but incorporates homes and businesses on several surrounding acres that the township is seeking to acquire under threat of condemnation.
There is nothing to indicate the dispute had a direct role in Fritzsche's death, but it immediately made him a martyr in the minds of eminent-domain opponents in town. Some, led by dissident Commissioner Kathleen V. Hogan, organized a candlelight vigil and sang "Danny Boy" outside his bar Monday evening.
The stress of battling the township "had something to do with his death," said Debi Fischer, owner of Perks Place, a barbershop next door to the pub also slated for takeover.
Hogan said: "There might be something about coming to a public meeting and getting all upset and... days later he is dead."
Mayor William J. Park Jr., one of the two other commissioners strongly backing the redevelopment, said such allegations were "despicable" and "irresponsible."
"It's like me saying if I had a heart attack, it was because somebody came up at the meeting and created my illness," Park said.
Fritzsche's widow, Beth Anne, said the cause of his death was unclear. He had suffered seizures in recent years, she said, and sensed the onset of another after staining a new door Sunday afternoon. He stopped breathing after being rushed to the hospital that evening, she said.
Just what role did she believe the eminent-domain dispute played in his death?
"I don't think it caused it, but it weighed heavily on him, very much so. The pub was his life," she said. He spent 36 years at the pub, first as an employee.
Others noted that Fritzsche could hardly stop talking about his predicament since September, when Pat's Pub was added to the list of properties the township was seeking to acquire for the redevelopment. Fieldstone Associates of Doylestown has tentatively been designated developer of the project.
John Sandone, a developer and business owner in the town, recalled that Fritzsche was still "in a tizzy" Thursday over the surprise health inspection when the two men met at a luncheonette.
Sandone, too, is fighting to hold on to land and properties that are part of the redevelopment plan.
"I am getting worn down," he said as he nursed a bout of pneumonia at home.
Last week, the project moved forward after marathon meetings of the Board of Commissioners and planning board.
The Planning Board took under consideration amendments that include the acquisition of Fritzsche's pub. The board is to meet again at 7 p.m. tomorrow at the municipal building to review the plan and hear public comments.
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