FLEMINGTON, NJ – It looks like the Union Hotel may get a bit of TLC.
Residents have long pressured Borough Council to invoke its property maintenance ordinance to allow it to take steps to preserve the landmark Main Street building. Council has resisted the efforts, with former Council President Brian Swingle repeatedly claiming that bankruptcies involving the entities that own the hotel complicate the process. Critics, including resident Steve Tuccio, have argued that a lien placed on the property would allow the borough to recoup its costs, as it has with other distressed properties.
But Swingle lost the election last year, and with newcomers Michael Harris and Betsy Driver now on Council, there may be a change in sentiment.
At Council’s meeting Monday, Harris sought approval of a resolution that he said would allow officials to “activate the powers” of the borough maintenance ordinance “so that the Union Hotel can be preserved.”
Harris said his concern was with the exterior only. He said he is “not looking for a renovation here, but rather basic property maintenance.”
There is “strong community desire, as well as desire by the designated re-developer, to preserve this structure,” Harris said.
Harris’ draft resolution would have allowed officials to bring in a contractor, “under the direction of the property maintenance code enforcement officer ... so that we can identify what simple steps can be taken to protect the structure from continued damage,” Harris said.
Such steps may be as simple as closing windows, he said.
“If there are holes in the roof - and we know there are - putting a tarp over it” might be a remedy, Harris said. “We’ve gone an extended period of time without addressing this, but that doesn’t excuse us from our responsibility.”
Harris described it as a “simple issue ... stabilizing the exterior” of the building. His effort is “not intended to condemn the property or impose onerous expense on the property owner for renovation,” Harris said, but it would help correct what he called errors of previous Borough Councils.
Borough attorney Barry Goodman said that while protecting the hotel is a matter for Council to decide and is not a legal issue, “procedures have to be followed before any work can be done.”
Goodman said Harris’ resolution should be drafted to comply with the borough’s ordinance. That would require advance notice to the property owner, reports from the borough’s code official, and a cost estimate because the work would be done at the taxpayer’s expense.
And, notwithstanding the fact the borough could place a lien on the property, there’s “no guarantee that you’d ever be repaid that money,” Goodman said.
The attorney said his concern was that “procedural issues are taken care of, to maximize the likelihood that it couldn’t be subject to legal challenge by the owner.” For example, the resolution proposed by Harris included “deadlines that are contrary to the ordinance, in terms of how quickly work would have to be done that are a little troubling to me,” Goodman said.
Mayor Phil Greiner said, “I don’t personally feel that we should have taxpayers step in here and pay for this.”
Councilperson Brooke Warden asked if there might be grants available that would help pay for the work, but Greiner said that while money is sometimes available for properties owned by non-profit groups, that wasn’t the case for privately-owned properties.
After a debate, Harris agreed to withdraw the resolution and work with Goodman to draft a revised version that may be introduced at the next Borough Council meeting. That will be held at 7 p.m. Feb. 12 in the old Historic Courthouse on Main Street.