Council Approves Union Hotel Agreement Over Residents' Objections

Borough Council member John Gorman Credits: Curtis Leeds
Developer Don Shuman Credits: Curtis Leeds
Attorney Robert Beckelman advises the borough on redevelopment matters. Credits: Curtis Leeds
Monday's Borough Council meeting in the Historic Courthouse was well-attended. Credits: Curtis Leeds
Attorney M. James Maley, Jr.,represents the Friends of Historic Flemington group. Credits: Curtis Leeds
Flemington Mayor Phil Greiner Credits: Curtis Leeds

FLEMINGTON, NJ – Borough Council voted to approve its redeveloper agreement with Jack Cust last night, in front of a large crowd at the meeting in the old Historic Courthouse here.

Council members Kim Tilly, Marc Hain, Brooke Liebowitz, John Gorman and Brian Swingle all voted in favor. Council member Susan Peterson was absent; Mayor Phil Greiner said she told him she was ill.

The mayor himself doesn’t have a vote – except to break a tie – but he’s been vocal in his support for the plan.

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The agreement includes the Union Hotel and could allow its demolition, and seeks to add properties on Spring Street to the original Main Street plan.

The mayor called the borough’s declining commercial property values “not sustainable” and asked, “When you have a realistic solution to a problem that you know must be resolved, is it prudent to say ‘No, thank you,’ and wait until you get something everyone can agree on? That is the essence of the decision that faces the Council.

“Sometimes when you wait for the perfect solution it can leave you with no solution at all,” the mayor said. He called Cust the “first developer to approach us with a real solution to the problem.”

Before casting his vote, Gorman quipped that he’d offer his comments “before my divorce is final.” His wife is Elaine Gorman, who is the chair of the borough’s Historic Preservation Commission

Notwithstanding the vote, many from the public urged caution.

Bruce Miller retired a year-and-a-half ago from the Raritan Township Municipal Authority, where he served for 13 years. RTMUA provides service to the borough, and Miller warned that the project will require upgrades to an RTMUA overflow facility that could cost $33 million. Of that, 80 percent would be paid by borough, he said, with the remainder paid by RTMUA.

“We caution against numbers like $33 million,” Greiner answered, because it won’t be something the borough will be “stuck with. There was one worst-case scenario where it could be a lot of money,” he said, but he doesn’t think that’s a likely outcome.

Greiner said Miller’s concern is an example of how numbers “are being thrown out there because they have emotional appeal” such as fear factor. “Please don’t go down this path. We are working with the state,” he promised.

M. James Maley, Jr., an attorney representing the Friends of Historic Flemington group that seeks preservation of the Union Hotel, said the agreement “has given up legislative prerogatives to the developer.” He said it states that “the governing body will do the technical review of the concept plan,” something he says is “explicitly not permitted” because statute requires it be done by the Planning Board.

Robert Beckelman, the borough attorney who advises Council on redevelopment,  said that stipulation provides “an additional level of review to offer more protection to the borough” and that the final plan will still require Planning Board approval.

Susan Englehardt is on the borough’s Hotel Area Redevelopment Committee, and also serves as vice chair of Flemington’s Planning and Zoning Board. She told Council that the “Planning Board has a very limited role in this project. Our recommendations aren’t binding, and we are not even obligated to hear public comments.”

And even if the Planning Board were to oppose the plan, “Council can approve that development plan by a super-majority,” Englehardt said.

Englehardt  also said that tying Cust’s concept plan to the redeveloper’s agreement “which assumes demolition of four architecturally significant buildings on Main Street will jeopardize the long-term viability of this project” for both Cust and the borough.

“Not only does demolition open the borough up to lawsuits,” Englehardt said, but it’s in “clear conflict with borough’s Master Plan.”

Resident Marcia Karrow cited her nearly 20 years’ experience in local and state government, and said Council should seek financial statements from developers and “ask for a performance bond to make sure this project gets completed.

“I have never seen anything as badly written, as poorly constructed, that gives away sovereign rights of municipal government, ever in my life,” she said of the redeveloper agreement, which includes  “everything from subordinating to mortgage holders and giving up your right to be the first lien holders on a project.”

Karrow also said that the agreement should require that the liquor license Cust now holds be returned to the borough if the project is not completed.

The passion of those who object to the plan is matched by those in favor.

Sayreville resident Jim Robinson is vice chair of the county’s Chamber of Commerce, and has served as Planning Board Chairman and president of New Jersey Planning Officials, a non-profit group.

“The time is now, or probably a little while ago, to move forward to accept the reality that Flemington needs a catalyst, an economic boost to prosper, to remain viable and to reverse the downward economic spiral that we have all experienced in the last decade since the hotel closed,” Robinson said. “The Chamber of Commerce believes this plan is in the best interest of Flemington and Hunterdon County. In fact, this is the only plan before you.”

 “What we lack is sufficient confidence in the future of Flemington and Band-Aids won’t help,” said Don Shuman, who has been involved with local development since the 1940s.

“Small projects won’t help,” Shuman said. “I’ve tried some. It takes a bold project to do it. It takes one of the size we’re talking about here.

“I’m not here as a supporter or proponent of Jack Cust. But he’s the only one that’s come up with something ... that will make the difference, that will make Flemington work. I unabashedly support the project.”

Resident Robert Shore also supports the project, but he expressed concerns about the process.

“You’re more of an advocate for the developer,” he told Council. “I have no qualms with the developer,” he said, but said that the interests of constituents should come first. He suggested that Council “take a pause,” tell Cust what it wants and what the needs of the community are “so that there’s an opportunity to come up with a consensus.” That’s all I ask.”

Before casting his vote, Council member Swingle recalled the six years he’s worked to make a project involving the Union Hotel happen.

“We’ve poured our soul into this thing,” Swingle said of public officials. He referenced his historic home that he works to restore and that is just half a block from the hotel. “My, parents, retirees, live half a block in the other direction,” he said of his family. “This is all we’ve got. This is everything my family has. Our three homes on Broad Street, that’s everything we’ve got.”

And, he said, the Cust plan is in the best interests of the community.

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