Earl plans to take popular bar through eminent domain: Pottstown (PA) mercury, 7/12/06

By Brandie Kessler

A decision by [Earl Township PA] officials to take several properties along Manatawny Creek has one business owner frustrated and confused.

The township supervisors voted Monday to begin eminent domain proceedings on nine parcels of land, including The Tiki Bar, which Township Supervisor John Hetrick said is one of nine properties the township wants to acquire as part of a "hazard mitigation project."

"Everyone of those properties constitutes a hazard to the community and the environment, not to mention the people," Hetrick said.

Hetrick referenced floods in August 2005 and October 2005, saying the Manatawny Creek resembles the Colorado River when the water rises, and said floods put a spotlight on hazards like propane tanks that were washed down the creek during flooding.

Hetrick said the floods themselves are a hazard and are the reason the land is being taken. The plan, Hetrick said, is to make the area, including where The Tiki Bar, owned by James Finegan, sits, open space.

Finegan, who has owned and operated his outdoor restaurant for the past 17 years, said he is confused by the township taking his land, which is home to a successful, well-known business.

"In 17 years I’ve had the most successful outdoor restaurant in Berks County," Finegan said. "For Earl Township to decide they want to build a park (on my property) is ridiculous."

Finegan said he has heard the township’s reasoning about safety, and doesn’t believe any of it. "They’re completely full of crap," Finegan said.

Finegan said he has complied with all the township’s requests to make his property safe, including securing his propane tanks, which were anchored at cost to his supplier, Eddinger Propane Gas, having his sewer closed so that sewage cannot get into Manatawny Creek in the event of flooding, and his well is vented above flood level.

"I’ve done all the work I’m supposed to do, and now they’re gonna take the property anyway," Finegan said.

Finegan believes that the township may be acting, at least in part, on residents complaints about the Tiki Bar, which he said has been a common occurrence since he has owned the property and new residents have moved in — even despite his settlement with the township to make arrangements to closing his establishment at midnight, when he could stay open until 2 a.m., as a courtesy to residents around The Tiki Bar.

"I see this as the final act in a long play of (Earl Township) screwing with me," Finegan said.

Finegan said he has only experienced problems with flooding twice since he’s been at the site, and both times he was able to make a timely recuperation and get back to business. Finegan said he has flood insurance, and losing this restaurant would be more costly than any flood.

"It’s my livelihood," Finegan said. "If the government goes and buys your house, you can go and buy another house. A business is a little different. You can relocate a house — you can’t relocate a business. I’ve spent the prime years of my life establishing this business. How does any government come in and say, ‘OK, you’re not allowed to earn a living anymore?’"

Finegan said he doesn’t know what to do yet, but believes he will have to go before a judge to keep his property, or be justly reimbursed for his business, which he said he needs to have for at least another 10 years to get back financially what he has put into it.

"I’m self-employed, I don’t have a retirement program," Finegan said. "I have The Tiki Bar. They’re not going to give me $40,000 and walk away. They’re going to retire me and they’re going to retire me large."

Hetrick denied that complaints from residents had anything to do with the vote to acquire The Tiki Bar property.

"There’s no way on God’s Earth that I would support getting rid of nine properties just to get rid of The Tiki Bar," Hetrick said.

The eminent domain process is lengthy and involves hearings in Berks County Court.

Pottstown Mercury: http://www.pottstownmercury.com