FLEMINGTON, NJ - Instead of one big, knock-out punch, the courts are delivering one blow after another to Friends of Historic Flemington’s fight to save the Union Hotel.
On May 6, the Friends lost the third of three court battles against the Borough of Flemington and the Courthouse Square Redevelopment Project, when the Appellate Division issued its opinion on the challenge to the expanded area in need of redevelopment and the designation of the additional properties that were included.
In doing so, the Appellate Court rejected the challenge by the plaintiffs and upheld the trial court decision.
The court held that the basis for the designation of the additional properties – that they were necessary for the effective redevelopment – was valid and supported by the evidence.
Flemington Mayor Betsy Driver reacted to the court’s decision.
“This is an important victory for the borough and the FCUR redeveloper,” she said. “It is another step toward continuing to move forward with the scaled down Courthouse Square plan that fits our Main Street, the surrounding neighborhood and our borough. The current plan is what the residents want and it’s important to get moving on it before we lose valuable historic buildings to the ravages of time and decay.”
The lawsuit filed on Jan. 21 by Friends of Historic Flemington, LLC, named Gary Schotland and Lois K. Stewart as the plaintiffs, and the Borough of Flemington, the council and the planning board as defendants, plus the Flemington Center Urban Renewal LLC as the intervenor.
The subject of the lawsuit was a March 2017 resolution adopted by the borough council directing the municipal planning board to investigate and hold public hearings to determine if certain properties should be designated "an area in need of redevelopment."
Years earlier, in 2010, the borough had designated the historic Union Hotel, which has been vacant since 2008, as an area in need of redevelopment. The redevelopment area at that time consisted solely of one lot that included the hotel and a parking area to its rear.
After the designated developer failed to fulfill its obligations, the borough cancelled the redeveloper agreement.
The planning board conducted another study in 2014, expanded the redevelopment area by adding additional properties adjacent to the hotel (the 2014 redevelopment area) and the borough adopted the new plan and designated a different redeveloper. Those efforts also failed.
In 2016, the borough entered negotiations with John J. Cust, Jr., and ultimately conditionally designated him as redeveloper of the 2014 redevelopment area. Cust's conceptual plan envisioned other uses in an even more expanded redevelopment area.
Citing the two unsuccessful prior development attempts, the borough council passed a resolution in March 2017 which stated there was a need to expand the redevelopment area "beyond hotel and residential uses by including added options such as retail, educational, cultural and medical" in order to "arrest and reverse the lack of proper development." The additional redevelopment area is comprised of six properties immediately adjacent to or directly across the street from the 2014 redevelopment area.
It is the addition of those six properties that the Friends were fighting in this lawsuit. That battle now is over because the decision by the Appellate Division was unanimous and so there is no automatic right for the plaintiffs to have the Supreme Court hear an appeal.
The Friends, who describe themselves as “citizens, professionals, business and property owners concerned about the continuing degradation and loss of Flemington’s historic buildings,” have one more lawsuit pending.
However, the mayor is hoping that the legal battle will end sooner rather than later.
“The plaintiffs are now 0 for 3 on their court challenges,” she said. “There is still another lawsuit remaining. It would be nice if the plaintiffs took their losing streak to heart and simply moved on to allow the project in its new scaled-down form to help our town recover from the economic turndown we will experience post COVID-19.”
A spokesperson for the Friends could not be reached for comment.