Local Government Has Tax-Hungry Appetite for Eminent Domain

When the owners of a popular and successful seafood restaurant in Westville, N.J., were threatened with eminent domain abuse, they took a creative approach to activism.

Westville, a small working class town that rests at a tributary of the Delaware River, is home to many small family businesses operated by third and fourth generation owners.[1]

But apparently, the tax revenue those businesses have brought in for more than five decades was not good enough for the tax-hungry City Council.[2]  As is often the case in middle-class neighborhoods across the country—especially those with nice waterfront views—the City wanted more tax revenue and decided to use its power of eminent domain to make way for private development.  This is a common tactic used by cities whose current property owners are not providing enough money for the government.

The Achilles family restaurant, along with a few other businesses, are standing in the way of the desired “luxury” development, which would considerably raise the tax revenues for the City.  Letting the entire community know that their business was “Not for sale,” the Achilles family had to come up with a strategy effective enough to get the attention of everyone, including the City Council and the developers.

“We’re happy here, and we don’t want to leave a good thing,” said Dolores Achilles, owner of the Grabbes Seafood Restaurant.[3]

The name “Grabbes” (pronounced “grab-ees”) suddenly took on a whole new meaning for the Achilleses, as the City pushed heavily for a land-grab of the quaint restaurant.  In addition to following the advice they had gotten from a regional Castle Coalition conference in Newark, N.J., last November, the Achilleses used their own creative ideas to raise awareness about the issue of eminent domain abuse.

To do that, several dishes on the Grabbes Seafood Restaurant menu were renamed to bring attention to the looming threat of eminent domain for private commercial development.

The Caesar salad has now become the “Seizure” salad, topped with a dollop of  “Our House Dressing,” in honor of the Achilles’ home, which is attached to the restaurant.

And the crab cake sandwich has now become the “Ggrab cake sandwich,” complete with a side of “Lost Freedom Fries.”

The creative new “Eminent Domain Abuse Menu” has attracted so much attention that the Achilleses generated local press stories, which allowed the message to get back to the community that this horrible abuse was occurring in their own backyards.

Despite their strong stand against the development that would result in the bulldozing of their home, the Achilles continue to receive threats from the developers.  A recent letter to the Achilles matter-of-factly stated:  “We will refer the matter to the borough for formal condemnation.”[4]

Earlier this year, two City Council members were replaced by candidates claiming to oppose the abuse of eminent domain. voters because the candidates claimed to be against the abuse of eminent domain. This change gave Dolores Achilles a glimmer of hope that their property would be protected. Unfortunately, however, the two new members have, according to Dolores, “flip-flopped” on the issue. Dolores thinks it’s because “they want to bring in a ‘better’ class of people to raise tax revenue.” In fact, Councilman Woodrow Dooley – who now supports the project – has recently said that it "would bring a different class of people to the town." [5]

This development on the City Council inspired the Achilles family to make yet another addition to their special menu:  the “Flip flop hamburger,” also served with a helping of the “Lost Freedom Fries.”  The latest edition of the menu, nicknamed the “Council Special,” sparked much additional attention from the rest of the community.

As of October 2006, the Achilles restaurant and family home still stand in opposition to the eminent domain threat.  But the Achilleses remain steadfast and confident that by continuing to declare that their property is “Not for sale,” they just may be able to save what they have always owned.

“People think that if they get loud about the threat they will end up not getting anything at all,” said Dolores. “But the best thing we ever did was to be vocal.”

[1] “Westville’s redevelopment plan promising,” New Jersey Courier-Post, October 12, 2005.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Note: All quotations are from a personal interview with Dolores, Lou, and Al Achilles, conducted by Melanie Harmon on October 11, 2006.

[4] “Eminent domain sets off controversy in Westville,” NBC Channel 10, September 20, 2005.

[5] Trish Graber, "Redevelopment: A Key Step Closer," Glouchester County Times, August 24, 2006.