Eminent domain vs. a blue-collar dream: Philadelphia PA Inquirer, 12/3/06

By Terry Bitman

When you meet Dolores and Louis Achilles, sit with them in the restaurant that has been in the family for more than seven decades, listen to them talk sincerely and softly about hard work and long-held plans to pass on the business to their sons, and how all that may go for naught if the Borough of Westville uses eminent domain to seize their property in the name of progress, you can't help but feel empathy for them.

They are a slice of blue-collar America, a family trying to hold on, not to a dream but to a reality. They would have looked quite natural in a Rockwell painting.

Instead, they are center stage - and unwittingly so - in what is now a common contemporary tale of tradition clashing with progress.

Their place is one of several businesses and homes in a section around Westville's downtown earmarked as a redevelopment zone. That means the town would like to see these properties go and make way for new ones that would have more razzmatazz and put more tax dollars into the borough's treasury.

It is a drama played out across the country in old cities and towns, and locally in such places as Gloucester City, Haddon Township and Westville.

Last week, the Achilles family filed suit against Westville to overturn a Borough Council decision supporting the redevelopment.

They are trying to save their place, Grabbe's Seafood Restaurant Crab House, on Delsea Drive, a business started by Dolores' father, Alfred Grabbe, 75 years ago and now being gradually taken over by the sons of Louis and Dolores.

"We don't want to be dealing with lawyers and reporters and everyone else," Louis said. "It takes away from the business, from the things we really need to do. But we want the business to be here for our sons."

Grabbe's is a small restaurant populated more by regulars than casuals, a comfy place that seats about 75, not counting the bar. It is known for its specially prepared crabs. A retail seafood outlet sits behind the restaurant.

Borough Administrator William Bittner says a number of local folks don't like the redevelopment idea, but none has been as vociferous in their opposition as the Achilles family. He also emphasizes that no final decision on redevelopment has been made, and that eminent domain remains a last option.

"We are nowhere near that," Bittner said. "We don't have an inevitable project. We have a pretty picture."

Dolores and Louis have been proactive all along. They backed a slate of candidates in last year's municipal elections and renamed some menu items to show their frustration - like, Crab Caesar Salad became the Crab Seizure Salad, and the fries became Lost Freedom Fries.

A developer offered the family $300,000, which they said was not enough, even if they were inclined to sell. "It is really very simple, we don't want to go," Louis said. "This isn't about money."

The couple hired attorney Louis Giansante of Moorestown, a friend and customer. He says the case could take a year, perhaps more, to resolve.

Louis and Dolores are both 65 and gradually have been turning the business over to sons Al and Henry.

"We wanted to travel a little," Dolores said wistfully. "You know, take it easy a little. But we can't do that now. Not until this is resolved. We have to look out for our sons."

On the restaurant wall, just inside the door, is a large painting done by a friend. It depicts Grabbe's exterior, and lurking over the building is a giant, well-dressed man.

"He's the government," Dolores says. "He's trying to take over."

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