FLEMINGTON, NJ – While many who attended yesterday’s public hearing for the Borough Planning Board to consider expanding the Union Hotel's area for redevelopment may have wanted to talk about its aesthetics, much of the conversation revolved around something much more mundane: The law.

The proposal by redeveloper Jack Cust to add properties on Spring Street and Bloomfield Avenue to the existing Union Hotel plan pitted planner Beth McManus against attorney M. James Maley, Jr.

McManus works for the firm Clarke Caton Hintz, and is the borough’s planner. She recommends agreeing to Cust’s request.

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Maley is the attorney representing Friends of Historic Flemington, the group that seeks preservation and adaptive reuse of the hotel and surrounding properties.  

McManus and Maley don’t disagree about everything. They each concur that state rules that allow an “area in need of redevelopment” are rooted in the state’s constitution. And they also agree that the same rules that would allow a municipality to seize property under eminent domain – which isn’t under consideration in the Cust plan – are also the same rules that apply to development that doesn’t rely on property seizure.

Where they may differ most is whether those rules favor allowing the expansion. McManus says yes. But Maley’s arguments suggested McManus relied on circular reasoning to arrive at that conclusion. He presented professional planner Robert Melvin, whose testimony  challenged McManus.

Also at issue is whether allowing the expanding area is “necessary” under the rules that govern redevelopment areas. McManus acknowledged that she anticipated that challenge, and was prepared with the definition of the word according to Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Dick Stothoff, a Raritan Township resident who is a trustee of the Hunterdon Historical Society, said Cust is the first to say they’d fix the hotel “and keep hotel rooms upstairs,” and that the plan will encourage owners of other properties to undertake improvements “and Flemington will prosper.” Stothoff favors the plan, and while he said the Cust plan may not be “perfect,” he asked, “What’s the alternative?”

Jim Robinson and Bill Flahive, who both represent the county Chamber of Commerce, argued in favor of the expansion.

Resident Steve Tuccio said he understood the Chamber’s presence “Because the developer has a dog in this fight, and he’s a big Chamber guy ... the appearance of influence here doesn’t smell very good in a small town.”

Tuccio said the project is undergoing “scope creep” and that more expansion could be looming. He urged Planning Board members to examine their “consciences because there’s no right way to do the wrong thing ... it’s not a slippery slope, it’s one more step.”

 “If the Chamber of Commerce is so keen on this project,” perhaps it should allow its headquarters – the Large House on Main Street that is now under renovation – to be included, said resident Betsy Driver.

“It would be a perfect place for making an eight-story building,” Driver said, adding the Chamber “can take the first couple floors.”

Robert Shore said he not only favors the proposed expansion, but said he favors “naming the entire town an area in need of rehabilitation ... there are many, many blighted areas.”

Shore asked borough officials to consider, “Is this the best plan for Flemington? Does it include all the attributes we need for this town? ... I just want your best. We deserve it.”

Lois Stewart referred to quality of life and a developer’s return on investment and said, “QOL is as important as ROI.”

Joanne Braun, who helped organize Friends of Historic Flemington, said agreeing to Cust’s expansion would “open up even more of the borough of historic Flemington to turn it into a city. Flemington is a small town. It’s not New Brunswick. It’s not Jersey City. It’s not a seven-story building town.”

Council person Susan Peterson said that unlike the redevelopment efforts at the former Agway site, no requests for proposals for the hotel were sought by borough officials, and that the failure of two prior efforts to save the Union Hotel do not to not justify rewriting the entire process.

“It’s easier to follow the Chamber, follow another’s vison, follow the Freeholders, but ultimately this is a borough decision,” Peterson said. We need leaders here for us, the people of the borough ... I ask, ‘Who is working for whom here?’ ”

Planning Board member Mary Melfi made the motion to accept McManus’ report and recommend the expansion to Borough Council, and Edna Pedrick seconded it. As previously reported by TAPinto, the vote was unanimous, but is just a recommendation to Borough Council, who is expected to vote on it at its July 12 meeting.