FLEMINGTON, NJ – Most of the public attending Monday night’s Borough Council meeting expected a debate. After all, the agenda called for council to vote on an ordinance that would accept Jack Cust's plan to redevelop the Union Hotel and its surrounding properties.
But last week’s election ended with newcomer Betsy Driver and Michael Harris defeating council incumbents Kim Tilly and Brian Swingle. Those new voices – which have raised objections to parts of the Union Hotel plan – will replace two of the plan’s vocal council advocates.
“It is clear that we’ve got some work to do after the election,” said Mayor Phil Greiner. Knowing that the redevelopment plan was on the night’s agenda, “there have been a lot of one-to-one conversations going on leading up to tonight’s meeting,” the mayor said. “In fact, they went on through the weekend and even today almost right up to the meeting ... this has had a lot of weight and thought put into it.”
The conversations apparently resulted in Councilperson Brooke Liebowitz’s motion to table the vote until Dec. 11. Council President Marc Hain voted in favor of the motion and was joined by Susan Peterson and John Gorman. Swingle abstained from the vote; Tilly voted, “No.”
Liebowitz said she "wholeheartedly" supports the Cust plan. But, “there’s been a lot of misinformation during the campaign,” she said.
Liebowitz said she wants the newly elected Councilpersons “to sit at the table, ask questions, ease some of their concerns.
“I would like to reset this,” she said, and “get everybody on the same page as much as we can and bring the new people on board. And hopefully ... they will have support for this project in some form or another.”
“I want everyone to have the information,” she said, “so if they do start voting against it, I want them to know exactly what they are giving up.”
Liebowitz promised Driver and Harris that fellow Councilpersons and Cust would be “happy to sit down with you.”
Gorman agreed, and said, “We need time ... to think about this and talk it over.”
“There’s too many questions still unanswered,” Gorman said, hinting that he could favor a delay of more than a month. “I have questions about the report from the Planning Board,” he said, that concluded the plan is consistent with the borough’s Master Plan. Gorman bemoaned “the way everybody hates each other here ... Let’s get over it. Let’s make something work.”
“I think we should adopt the plan tonight ... this is a complex project,” the mayor said. He said parts of the process could be done in parallel rather than in series.
It would be different, the mayor said, if the redevelopment plan had just recently been proposed.
“But this has been a long time coming,” he said. “We’ve been working for months on this redevelopment plan.” And while changes could be made to it if needed, “I think that it is overly optimistic to think that a deal of this size is going to be reworked and back to the Council in one month’s time.
“If we make minor changes ... we can still adopt it” before the year is over, Greiner said. But, “If we make significant changes, then you have to reintroduce it and start over,” which would delay the plan’s adoption until next year.
“It would take magic dust sprinkled over this whole thing to have it resolved by Dec. 11,” the mayor said. “Practically speaking, what sounds like one month to start out is going to be many months I think to wrap up.” And while he said he thinks it’s important to work with the new Councilpersons, “I don’t think that needs to stop this.”
Meanwhile, Greiner said he’s already contacted Driver and Harris.
“We already have initial meetings set up for next week,” the mayor said. “As everyone knows, front and center will be their positions on hotel development, so we can clarify things. We know that the Council will look a little bit different next year in that regard. We acknowledge that’s the case. We will work as positively as we possibly can to reflect the feelings of the Council at the time.”
Along with the mayor, some others opposed the delay.
Resident Tony Previte called the plan a “political iceberg,” and asked Council to call for a vote. “Move forward,” he said. “It’s the best thing.”
Don Shuman, a local developer with no connection to the project, said, “Historic preservation is something I think we all want,” but he added that it “needs to be considered in the context of a critical need to revive and increase commercial activity.
“We also need to decide what historic preservation is so absolute,” Shuman said, that preservation of the historic properties is pursued “even though it only weakly benefits” commercial activity.
Shuman compared the Council’s role to that of a doctor administering to a patient. “The first order of business is obviously to take what action is necessary to prevent the patient’s death,” he said.
But resident Steve Tuccio saw it differently. For a doctor, “The first rule is do no harm,” he said.
Shuman asked about objectors to the plan if Cust withdraws.
“What do they think will happen after that?” he asked. “Who will be willing to subject themselves to this process? How long will it take?”
“I have known Cust a long time,” said Bob Benjamin of Flemington Furs. “Let me tell you: He’s always done what he’s said he’s going to do.” He noted changes Cust has already made to the plan to help preserve the hotel, which he said adds $1 million to Cust’s costs. That’s a “huge, massive victory for the opposition,” Benjamin said. “He’s doing it because he gets it. He knows what that building means to us.”
Former Hunterdon Freeholder George Muller of Raritan Township told officials, “If you delay just one month, it will be at least six months to a year” before progress is made on the plan.
“I would caution you about reading too much” into the borough’s election results, said Jim Robinson, who lives in Sayreville and sits on the board of Hunterdon's Chamber of Commerce.
“What happened here is what happened in 196 towns in New Jersey,” Robinson said. Governor-elect “Phil Murphy got more votes” in the borough than Driver and Harris, he said, “and he didn’t have a position on the hotel.
“What happened in Flemington is no different than what happened all throughout the state of New Jersey,” Robinson said. “It was based on a couple of other factors that I think we all know about.”
“I suspect that if I promised to legalize pot here in Flemington, I would have gotten more votes,” Driver answered.
Resident Robert Shore also challenged Robinson’s view of the election. It was “not only a referendum on this development,” Shore said, “but more of an indictment of the process.”
The process has been an ongoing issue for Harris. Last night, he called Council’s plans to enter into a PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) plan with Cust, “too expensive to describe.”
Liebowitz said the details of that plan are not ready to be released.
Stay with TAPinto.net for more on last night's Flemington Borough Council meeting.