FLEMINGTON, NJ – The authors of a “comprehensive review” of the proposed Courthouse Square Project – which includes the Union Hotel and surrounding properties – presented their findings and answered questions at last night’s Borough Council meeting.
Although the 262-page report may look daunting, it is less so than it might appear. That’s because Beacon relied on previously existing studies and data, which are attached to the study and account for 230 pages of the report.
Planners Andrew Janiw and Barbara Ehlen, of Beacon Planning and Consulting Services, said the CHS economic impact study was “highly unusual.”
Janiw recounted some of Beacon’s experience in conducting such research on redevelopment, but said the plan by Jack Cust’s Flemington Urban Renewal LLC was different because Beacon’s $10,000 study was ordered after Cust received Planning Board approval, a financial agreement and a signed redeveloper’s agreement.
Janiw said Beacon was, “Asked to take a look at the components of the project, the revenue stream generated by the project, as well as any impacts to the community, both physical and otherwise.”
And if that weren’t enough, he added that his role was to assess: “Does the PILOT justify the terms of the project?”
The “PILOT” is Payment in Lieu of Taxes on the 222 “multi-family residences,” 100 hotel rooms, 45,000 square feet educational/ medical space and 32,250 square feet retail/commercial fees that comprise the project.
Those annual PILOT fees equal $1,600 per residential unit; $1,200 per hotel room; and $1.50 per square feet of retail/commercial space. The Borough would also receive a 2 percent administration fee to administer the PILOT agreement, subject to a 5 percent increase after five years and every five years thereafter.
The plan would also generate a 3 percent hotel tax, and the redeveloper would pay into the Borough’s business improvement district, which is currently privately managed by Flemington Community Partnership.
Janiw said the project would not be viable without the PILOT agreement.
A study of the Borough’s water and sewer service infrastructure represented “a fairly intensive portion of this assessment,” Janiw said. The Borough has already extended “a guarantee to the redeveloper that the capacity would be available,” Janiw said, but existing infrastructure “has issues” that he said are related to age.
The existing agreement with Cust calls for a $2 million contribution from CHS “for a much-needed well,” Janiw noted, plus about $1.1 million towards sewer infrastructure improvements.
That exact amount is the subject of “ongoing discussions,” he said. But regardless of the total, “Public Works Department made it clear, that over the next 30 years, there will be an undertaking to replace all of the water and sewer infrastructure throughout the town whether this project occurs or not,” Janiw said.
Another challenge is what the Borough plans to do about its police station. It is obligated under its agreement with Cust to sell him the current Main Street police headquarters for $1.1 million and close on the transaction next month. The cost for a new police station is estimated between $3 million and $5 million “if it were to be built new,” Janiw said, but, “There are a variety of in-between alternatives (such as) leasing space, retrofitting existing space, taking new commercial space and retrofitting it.”
According to the report, Police Chief Jerry Rotella said that when the project is complete, he will need four new officers and three new police cars. Beacon’s analysis concludes only two additional officers and one or two new vehicles would be needed.
Some questioned Janiw’s claims. Marcia Karrow asked why Beacon never spoke directly with officials from the Raritan Township Municipal Utilities Authority, who will be providing sewer service to the project. Resident Joanne Braun challenged Janiw’s projection that of the 450 new residents, only 25 would be school-age children. She compared it to Hunter Hills, but Janiw cited standard studies in his calculation. He called Braun’s claim, “highly unusual. I can tell you one of the projects we worked on … 485 units, four children.”
In a letter to the editor, Council President Michael Harris said that a “comparison of anticipated revenue against the costs listed has the Borough paying $250,000 or more annually based on current contracts with the developer. This does not include added infrastructure costs.”
Anthony Koester, an attorney representing Cust, said he looks forward to working with Borough officials and offering “more accurate assumptions” and sharing figures he thinks are “more accurate.”
It’s actually impossible to draw firm conclusions from the Beacon study, in part because Janiw said it’s possible “that an alternative scenario may be proposed” to the one currently on the table.
The rumored “alternative scenario” could be a way to resolve the pending lawsuits filed against the Borough by Friends of Historic Flemington, a resident’s group that seeks adaptive reuse of historic buildings and opposes the building heights shown on the current CHS plans. Those suits have helped stall the CHS project.