FLEMINGTON, NJ – A divided Borough Council voted to take the next step toward invoking eminent domain and condemning the Union Hotel at its meeting last night.
Councilpersons Marc Hain, John Gorman and Brooke Warden voted in favor of the action; Councilpersons Susan Peterson and Michael Harris voted “no.” Councilperson Betsy Driver voted, “Hell, no.”
Mayor Phil Greiner voted to break the tie and direct “the Planning Board to conduct the necessary investigations and to hold a public hearing” to determine if the Union Hotel and other properties “qualify as a ‘Condemnation Redevelopment Area,’ ” according to the resolution.
Greiner said it would likely be August before a public hearing would be held on condemnation.
While the mayor told the public that, “We’re not taking anyone’s property here, this is a study,” Harris said the condemnation process “puts a gun to the head of the current property owner.”
Harris said that no approvals – including approval of the pending financial agreement between the borough and redeveloper Jack Cust – should be granted to Cust “until we have negotiations. Eminent domain interferes with negotiations.”
“The fact is we have no recourse” if Cust abandons the deal, perhaps even after buildings have been demolished, said Councilperson Betsy Driver. Under condemnation, the borough would take ownership of the hotel “even if only for a brief period of time. If Mr. Cust decides to walk at that point, we’re stuck owning more buildings on Main Street. I think that’s a really bad financial decision for the borough.”
Driver said Cust should be required to post a performance bond. Echoing the sentiment of Harris and resident Al Brewer, Driver noted that the liquor license Cust is required to hold is registered under a separate legal entity, which the three think is a violation of the redeveloper’s agreement.
“I have real big issues with even taking this step” towards condemnation, Driver said, “when Mr. Cust can’t even bother to transfer the liquor license.”
The hotel is the cornerstone of the Cust’s Flemington Center Urban Renewal, LLC redevelopment plan. But it, the adjacent “Potting Shed” building and its parking lot are owned by Raritan Township resident Steve Romanowski. Romanowski and Cust have not been able to agree to terms of a sale.
“Everyone including me has consistently said eminent domain is not something anyone wants to do,” Greiner said. “Frankly, I don’t think we’re going to wind up doing it. (But) we need the option.”
“If you don’t think you’ll use it, you don’t have to make the decision to keep the option open,” said resident Joey Novick.
Resident Steve Tuccio challenged Hain, who’d previously stated that he opposed invoking eminent domain. “Were you lying then or lying now?” Tuccio asked. “Trustworthiness is key.”
“Steve when you talk, do people listen to you?” Hain responded. “No,” he said, answering his own question, “because you talk out your (expletive) at times.”
The remark prompted an outburst, with Hain explaining that while he does oppose condemnation, when he was campaigning in the recent election primary, “The residents made it clear, they want that project done. ‘I don’t care what it takes,’ ” he said they told him. “Get the project done.”
Hain apologized for his remark, but he is not the only Council member who has spoken against condemnation.
“We are both very much against eminent domain as a redevelopment tool and don't know anyone who is in favor of taking away an individual's private property to give to another private party,” said a primary campaign statement from Hain and Warden. “We've both stated this publicly several times on the record and quite often in personal conversations with numerous folks, including private conversations with our opponent," a reference to Brewer.
As a candidate, Brewer ran consistently against condemnation. "Al Brewer knows how we feel about eminent domain, yet chooses to misrepresent our true values because he thinks that will get him votes," the statement from Hain and Warden said. "Al has no record of his own to run on so he chooses to fabricate the records of his opponents.”
Brewer said that Hain and Warden's vote in favor of condemnation was "disingenuous" and proof that he didn't misrepresent their position.
Harris has introduced position papers on the hotel which he is publishing on his Facebook page. In the first installment of what he says will be a 10-part series, Harris wrote he'll “show that the Borough’s Redeveloper Agreement with Flemington Center Urban Renewal, LLC, was a bad deal for the Borough. I am providing this information as my colleagues on the Borough’s Redevelopment Committee continue to seek project approvals ahead of negotiating.
“If we really want development, then we need to fix the Borough’s agreements with its developer,” Harris wrote.
Politics are a part of the tension over condemnation. In November, Greiner will be challenged in the mayoral election by Driver. Brewer ran in the primary for a Republican nomination to Council, but lost to Warden and Hain. Novick will be on the ballot as an independent seeking a Council seat. Democrats Christopher Runion and Caitlin Giles-McCormick will also be seeking Council seats.