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A Chester County town traded a new road for approval of a Giant supermarket. A family grocer is fighting back.

Developers wanted to bring a supermarket to East Brandywine, which has just one grocery store. The proposal set off an intense legal battle involving eminent domain that will soon enter its 10th year.

The Croppers (from left) John; his wife, Connie; their son, Chad; and daughter Melissa Cropper-Fazio in their family store, Crops Fresh Marketplace, in Chester County.
The Croppers (from left) John; his wife, Connie; their son, Chad; and daughter Melissa Cropper-Fazio in their family store, Crops Fresh Marketplace, in Chester County.Read moreBob Williams

Developers Peter Miller and Peter Carlino pulled up to lunch with a straightforward pitch.

They planned to build a 10-shopping complex anchored by a Giant supermarket in East Brandywine, a rural Chester County community where residents routinely drove 20 minutes or more to grocery shop. The only sizable — but arguably pricey — market in town was Croppers, wedged in the Brandywine Village Shopping Center strip mall, and named after the family that started it in 1953.

On that day in June 2010, federal court records show, Miller and Carlino, the president and managing partner of Carlino Commercial Development in West Conshohocken, offered to buy Brandywine Village before the Giant moved in next door and drove it out of business.

It was the start of a bitter, complicated, and costly eminent domain fight about to enter its 10th year. Along the way, it has involved accusations of anticompetitive behavior from Pennsylvania’s largest grocery chain, frustration over what Carlino has termed frivolous lawsuits, complaints of township bias toward Carlino, and infighting among East Brandywine officials.

The dispute — notable in its duration and breadth — has wearied all involved, with some unable to see a speedy resolution. At one point, township residents took to to beg for any grocery store in town.

From the beginning, Leonard and Richard Blair, brothers and real estate developers who co-managed the Brandywine Village Shopping Center where Croppers was its main tenant, balked at Carlino’s proposition and at his subsequent offers. Miller would later testify that Leonard Blair swore to oppose any Carlino plan that involved a grocery store.

Giant, which had signed a 20-year lease with Carlino, the records show, pushed the developers to acquire Brandywine Village. Amid ongoing resistance from the Blairs, a Giant representative wrote to Carlino: “They will be sorry they pushed on this deal.”

“No one’s bullied the Blairs," Miller said in an interview. “This is about providing choice for the community.”

East Brandywine officials, for their part, have been accused of meeting privately with Miller and others from Carlino in 2010 to work out a deal. The officials termed it a standard meeting with a developer.

By fall 2010, another suggestion was on the table. If Carlino would design, build, and pay for a road that town officials had wanted for years — and thus save taxpayers from the cost — the company could improve its chances of building its shopping complex, called East Brandywine Center.

Carlino agreed, and East Brandywine’s Planning Commission conditionally approved the plan in 2011.

“I would have been better off if I just signed the land over to them and walked away,” Leonard Blair said recently. “But it’s human nature to fight for what they have.”

At the intersection of the spat

The intersection of North Guthriesville Road and Route 322 in East Brandywine is fraught with traffic, agitated drivers, and regular crashes. A deal to get a previous developer to improve the intersection had fallen through during the 2008 financial crisis. Carlino, it seemed, was the solution to a pressing problem.

Carlino eventually included designs for a new, 1,080-foot-long road in its plans, first submitted in 2010, for a 65,400-square-foot shopping complex at 1279 U.S. Route 322, also known as Horseshoe Pike.

But to build the road, the company said, it would need to traverse neighboring land — property belonging to the Blairs and their business partner, John Cropper.

What ensued was a legal battle over access to that land.

In 2014, East Brandywine and Carlino officials signed a document that effectively bound the builders to construct the road and compensate the town for legal fees that would arise from taking the land by eminent domain. Soon after, township supervisors voted to take 1.93 acres from the Blairs and 0.069 acres from Cropper.

“What I really see is the trashing of private property rights,” Leonard Blair said. “When the developer comes to town, the township realizes they can get something for nothing by giving the developer what it needs.”

Later that year, a lawyer for Cropper and the Blairs filed suit, calling the taking of the land a move “principally intended” to benefit Carlino.

Town officials rejected the allegation, calling the seizure a chance to develop a much-needed road.

But the town hadn’t always insisted on the necessity of the road.

After the Chester County Court of Common Pleas refused to approve a 2012 iteration of Carlino’s plan that included the road, according to federal court records, East Brandywine’s then-solicitor, Stacey L. Fuller, wrote to Carlino’s lawyer: “Even after the township agreed to proceed without the connector road, Carlino has decided it would prefer to proceed with the road.”

Giant appeared “to have consistently pressed” for the road to be built under the terms of its lease agreement with Carlino, according to the filing by Brandywine Village.

The company that owns Giant, Netherlands-based food conglomerate Ahold Delhaize, declined to comment.

Miller testified that town officials were “adamant” that Carlino build the road to avoid paying a traffic impact fee of up to $1.9 million.

“The whole thing is frightening,” Leonard Blair said. “You got a bunch of big boys running around with a lot of money.”

‘Too many eyes watching this project’

By 2016, Cropper and the Blairs had taken Carlino to court numerous times in various venues. They alleged that the developers’ proposals, several of which required upward of a dozen zoning ordinance waivers, blatantly violated rules but that East Brandywine officials had approved them anyway.

The same year, Cropper and the Blairs filed a federal antitrust lawsuit that accused Giant and Carlino of “anticompetitive and conspiratorial acts.” The case is stayed, pending decisions from state courts.

The ongoing legal dispute is “completely ridiculous,” Miller said.

“They’ve used all manner of litigation in order to attempt to thwart our development,” he said, “depriving the community of jobs, taxes, revenue, and new roadway infrastructure that was a need before we were ever even in the picture.”

Three times, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania has overturned county court decisions that upheld East Brandywine’s approvals of Carlino’s plans.

Paul Prince, the lawyer for Cropper and the Blairs, accused East Brandywine’s supervisors of pandering to Carlino to get the road built and unsuccessfully pushed in court to bar the supervisors from voting on Carlino’s proposals, saying some town officials had “repeatedly crossed the line between adjudicator and advocate.”

He alleged that private meetings between town officials and Carlino’s representatives in 2010 violated the state’s open meetings act. Supervisor Jay Fischer said he believed the meetings were permissible.

But in an October 2010 email unearthed during the legal proceedings, East Brandywine Town Manager Scott Piersol wrote to the Board of Supervisors: “I farther [sic] explain that the board cannot continue to meet in these backroom meetings to discuss these issues, as it appears to violate the Sunshine Act for open meetings to discuss agency business. … At the advice of our solicitor … I said we need to avoid this appearance as there are too many eyes watching this project.”

Amid Carlino’s attempts to acquire it, Brandywine Village Shopping Center struggled.

Associated Wholesalers Inc., which had owned Croppers’ Market since the Croppers sold out in 2002, subleased the store to the Stauffer Family Group, which changed the name to Stauffer’s Market, according to federal court documents.

Three years later, Associated Wholesalers filed for bankruptcy, and during the proceedings, C&S Wholesale Grocers — which counts Giant as a major customer — took over the Stauffer’s Market lease. In 2015, aware of plans for a Giant next door, C&S closed Stauffer’s.

And East Brandywine lost its only grocery store.

Residents lamented through — some in favor of Giant, others for Croppers, but most just longing for any grocer to come to town.

“We absolutely need a supermarket in the township!" one commenter wrote. “It’s ridiculous to drive 20+ minutes when we could have one right up the road?!"

‘No end in sight’

Brandywine Village has appealed Carlino’s plan — again. The case over the most recent township approval is pending in county court.

All involved express frustration.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Jason Winters, an East Brandywine supervisor sworn into office last year. “It’s a waste of resources. ... I wasn’t happy how the township used its power of eminent domain for the sole purpose of benefiting the developer."

“Seems like the same arguments are being made over and over,” he said. “Is there a way to end this where all the parties get what they want, or mostly what they want?”

In perhaps one sign of movement, Carlino paid Cropper and the Blairs earlier this year for the property seized from them — just over $100,000 in total.

And amid the turmoil, the Blairs and the Croppers last year reopened the store in Brandywine Village, now called Crop’s Fresh Marketplace.

“I never expected it to get to this level,” Leonard Blair said. “Now that it has, there’s no end in sight."

Miller, however, is optimistic: “I believe we will prevail."