FLEMINGTON, NJ – Condemnation, compromise and civility were among the topics at yesterday’s contentious meeting of Borough Council, which lasted nearly four hours last evening.
Councilperson Betsy Driver, who has filed to run for mayor this year, introduced a centerpiece to the dais. It was a brick she said she was given and which is “allegedly from the Union Hotel.”
Bricks falling from the landmark structure are nothing new, and are among the clues that the hotel is in a state of steady decay.
The brick symbolized Driver’s criticism of Mayor Phil Greiner for his remarks at the April 9 Council meeting.
At that meeting - in a plea to the Friends of Historic Flemington group, Gary Schotland and Lois Stewart to compromise and negotiate settlements on their suits against the borough - Greiner said he’d encouraged hotel redeveloper Jack Cust “to not offer any further concessions at all, not a single brick, unless it is in the context of a global settlement of this, including the lawsuits.”
The mayor and Cust “should be eager to offer bricks to the many residents of this borough who are opposed to a 100-foot tall mega-development in the middle of a National Historic District,” Driver said. Until the mayor recognizes the opposition and that “compromises need to be made ... I’ll continue to bring this brick,” she said.
Perhaps, Driver mused, she might decide to name the brick.
In his remarks, Greiner noted that Steve Romanowski, the presumed owner of the Union Hotel after winning it at a court-ordered sheriff’s auction, “has not yet followed through” on his promise to sell the hotel and Potting Shed properties to Cust. “Until he does follow through, we will continue to follow the steps in the ‘eminent domain’ process,” the mayor said, using Council’s preferred term for “condemnation.”
Greiner said he’s been cautiously optimistic that condemnation wouldn’t be required, “But the ball is in Mr. Romanowski’s court at this point. He has been offered contracts that reflect terms to which he agreed.” Councilperson Brooke Warden confirmed, “There is a binding agreement” for Romanowski to sell the hotel to Cust.
But last week, under oath at a public meeting of the county’s Construction Board of Appeals, Romanowski said the building remains for sale.
That heightens the likelihood that condemnation may be necessary for Cust’s Flemington Center Urban Renewal, LLC to gain control of the hotel, which is the centerpiece of the Courthouse Square redevelopment project. But the notion of condemnation is a controversial one.
“Reconsider moving forward with eminent domain,” resident Jeffrey Cain told Council. “I think it would be unwise to trample private property rights.”
How likely is it that Council will approve condemnation to force the sale of the hotel to Cust?
That’s something Alan Brewer, who is seeking the Republican nomination to Borough Council in June, sought to discover. He asked for a “straw poll” of Council members for their position on invoking eminent domain.
Brewer and Councilperson Michael Harris had unsuccessfully sought such a vote at the last Council meeting. But last night, after a lengthy discussion and despite discouraging words from borough attorney Barry Goodman and Greiner himself, Brewer and Harris prevailed to force a non-binding vote.
Warden called it “disrespectful” to seek the poll from Council without submitting the proposal in advance and said she preferred it be discussed in closed-door “executive session.”
“I know this is a campaign issue ... candidates are preparing flyers on eminent domain,” she said.
The mayor also noted the upcoming primary election. “You are putting election politics ahead of the serving the borough,” he said in arguing against the poll.
And while Greiner said, “There is no one who wants” to invoke eminent domain, he called it “a tool in the toolbox, if you need to use it. It’s essentially part of your bargaining strategy... if you declare your position before you sit down at the negotiating table you’re giving away a lot of leverage.”
Brewer argued that the poll was important because if Council isn’t willing to condemn the hotel, it should be working with Cust towards a compromise; Harris said it would also be useful for the Planning Board – who would eventually review Cust’s plan should he submit a formal one – to know Council’s position.
In the poll, Councilpersons Harris, Susan Peterson and Driver voted against using the tool. Councilperson John Gorman abstained. Warden also abstained, but had said earlier she was not in favor of it except as “a last-ditch effort.’
Councilperson Marc Hain, who was absent, said at the last meeting he opposed condemnation.
Warden, in an emotional speech, pleaded for civility and for residents to work together.
“It’s very demoralizing and disheartening to have personal attacks against me,” she said. “I’ve been threatened, I’ve had my house vandalized, my children have had rumors spread about them.”
Warden acknowledged she actually sought to have her name removed from June’s primary ballot, but was told by County Clerk Mary Melfi that the deadline for that had passed..
“I would like to call for some sort of civility in this campaign,” Warden said, and for all residents and candidates to work together towards a solution.
“That’s the difference between campaigning and governing,” she said.