FLEMINGTON, N.J. – There were cheers. And jeers. But at last night’s meeting of Borough Council, the outcome of the vote to approve a financial agreement with the redeveloper of the Union Hotel and surrounding properties was not a surprise.
Council voted along its well-established ideological lines, with Councilpersons John Gorman, Marc Hain and Brooke Warden voting in favor, and Councilpersons Betsy Driver, Michael Harris and Susan Peterson voting against the agreement with Jack Cust’s Flemington Center Urban Renewal, LLC.
As has been the pattern all year on votes involving the hotel redevelopment plans, Mayor Phil Greiner broke the tie by voting to approve the agreement, which includes a controversial Payment in Lieu of Taxes provision.
Harris offered to be a “fourth vote in favor” of the plan if he could be allowed to help negotiate the plan to resolve contingencies, but a vote to table the approval to allow that discussion failed along the usual lines.
There were pleas and drama – including former Hunterdon Freeholder George Muller’s proclamation that the vote would determine “the destiny and future of Flemington” and be “the most important decision that’s ever been made by a governing body in the history of this town, even though it was settled in the 1700s.”
But the biggest news of the evening was announced more than four hours into the meeting, long after Muller and most of the others in attendance had left. That’s when Borough attorney Robert Beckelman advised Council that he was reversing advice his firm had already provided to Council.
On Sept. 19, Barry Goodman – who along with Beckelman is an attorney with the Greenbaum, Rowe, Smith & Davis law firm – told officials that a “super-majority” vote of Council would be needed to approve the bond ordinance that is part of Cust’s redevelopment plan. That raised doubt that the currently divided Council would approve the financing, which is critical to Cust’s PILOT program at the heart of the financial agreement between him and the borough.
That was the best conservative advice at the time, Beckelman said last night, but it has since been rendered obsolete by legislation that has just recently been approved. The legislation clarifies that a simple majority is all that’s needed provided that the borrowing is not guaranteed by the municipality, which is the case in Cust’s plan, Beckelman said.
Of course, other obstacles remain, including suits by Friends of Historic Flemington, which sued just last week to have Cust’s plan ruled “invalid.”
The public hearing before the Borough Planning Board into Cust’s application will resume on Thursday. It will begin at 7 p.m. in the old Historic Courthouse on Main Street.