FLEMINGTON, NJ – As expected, Borough Council introduced its ordinance for the Union Hotel redevelopment plan at its meeting yesterday. The action continues a timeline that includes discussion of the plan at an Oct. 30 special meeting of the borough Planning/Zoning Board. That has been set for 7 p.m. Oct. 30, also in the Historic Courthouse.
Planning/Zoning Board Chairperson Todd Cook told the public that his group’s review of the plan won’t be a public hearing. That means that while accepting public comment isn’t required, he plans to accept comments on the plan “limited to whether it’s consistent with the Master Plan.”
Cook said those public remarks will be limited to one per person, with a three-minute time limit.
Councilperson Susan Peterson cast the sole vote on Council against the plan.
“Without cost projections and detailed financial estimates by an impartial authority and subsequent review, I cannot support a vote to send this plan to the Planning Board,” she said. “Honestly, I do not know what we are planning for.”
Joanne Braun, who is part of the Friends of Historic Flemington group that opposes the plan, told Council she doesn’t understand why officials do “absolutely nothing” to preserve the Union Hotel that is at the center of the plan.
A borough maintenence ordinance would allow officials to take steps to shore up the decaying buiding, she said.
Councilperson Brian Swingle said the borough doesn’t own the hotel, which is ensnared in bankruptcy. “There’s limited ability for us to do anything about it without risking significant taxpayer funds,” he said.
Swingle suggested Braun could approach hotel owner approach Liam Burns and offer to help, “but instead you choose to spend tens of thousands of dollars suing us instead.”
Borough attorney Barry Goodman noted that the Friends group has “filed an application for an injunction to stop the entire process from going forward.
“We vigorously opposed it,” Goodman said, and the court is expected to hear the case.
“It seems crazy to put this on the agenda tonight,” resident and borough Historic Preservation Commission member Richard Giffen told Council.
Giffen said that because “you’re not going to know until January” the status of the building at 90 Main St. that is under review by the state’s Historic Preservation Office - and which is part of the development plan - the timing appeared to be political in an effort to help Councilperson Brian Swingle’s re-election bid.
“The SHPO process is being worked in parallel with the local approval process, not in series,” said Mayor Phil Greiner. “The redeveloper agreement ... lays out a timeline of approval, and we are obligated on both sides to keep our activities moving along on schedule as best we can.”
“We’re accelerating the approval process,” said Borough Council candidate Michael Harris. “We have no details,” he said, particularly regarding the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program that will exempt the redeveloper from paying school taxes for as long as 30 years.
“Nothing’s being accelerated,” answered Greiner. “This is the same schedule that’s been in effect since we adopted the plan in March,” and he said it had been announced several times when the ordinance supporting the plan would be introduced.
Councilperson John Gorman is in a unique positon.
“I live in a house where my wife is head of one committee and I’m on another,” he said, a reference to Elaine Gorman’s role as head of the borough’s Historic Preservation Commission, which has opposed the plan.
Nevertheless, Gorman said, “We should move forward” and send the plan to the Planning Board for review. There will be time for discussion later in the process, he said.
John Giotis of Raritan Township spoke in favor of the plan. He said it “will improve demographics” and help small business owners.
“It’s good for everybody,” he said.
Don Shuman also favors of the plan. The real estate expert and developer told Council that because of his age, he has a perspective on the plan that no one else has.
His Main Street office “has been there for decades,” Shuman said.
“On a daily basis, I look up and down Main Street, and I see a huge number of parking spaces,” Shuman said. “It’s the worst I’ve seen .. literally, since the ‘30s. To me, that says it all. We’ve got to jump-start the town and if we wait much longer it will be too late.”
Resident Robert Shore said he agreed with Shuman. He suggested Council sit down with its opposition to develop a plan that could proceed without lawsuits.
The proposal is “out of scale” to the Master Plan,” Shore said. “Work out some compromise so that the plan can move forward,” he pleaded.
“This project needs to proceed as quickly as possible,” Shore insisted. “But I’m concerned,” Shore said, that further delays and lawsuits could put in at risk, “and it could be a decade before there’s progress.”
Shore wants to Council to engage professionals to examine the cost of project and the rate of return on it.
“A lot of people are operating in a vacuum,” said Councilperson Brooke Liebowitz. She said the redevelopment plan will gather more support as more details are released. She said a “whole team” of experts have looked at it.
The public meeting was briefly interrupted when the mayor told resident Steve Tuccio to “please leave” after Tuccio disguised an expletive as a sneeze. Greiner asked a police offcier to escort him out of the buiding, which he did without incident.
“It’s unacceptable, absolutely unacceptable,” the mayor said about Tuccio’s behavior.
“All of the people who attend this are entitled to a certain decorum in the meeting which he fails to provide,” Greiner said in an interview after the meeting. “We’re not going to have people yelling obscenities under the guise of a sneeze.”
The mayor said, “It’s the third time he’s done it.
“I cautioned him the last time. It’s in the minutes,” the mayor said. He acknowledged that ejecting someone from the meeting is “a judgment call” but said the issue is “the obscenities. The repeated obscenity, and it’s loud. The whole place hears it.”
Greiner said he’s never previously asked someone to leave a public meeting.
Council will hold a public hearing on the ordinance in support of the plan at its Nov. 13 meeting. That will be held at 7 p.m. in the old Historic Courthouse on Main Street here.