FLEMINGTON, NJ – The property hasn’t changed hands, but Jack Cust has an agreement to purchase the Union Hotel from its owner, Steve Romanowski.
That’s what Mayor Phil Greiner announced at yesterday’s Borough Council meeting, where the hotel and the politics surrounding it took center stage. Steve Romanowski, who owns the hotel, confirmed the agreement in an interview today.
It’s big news because Cust’s Urban Renewal, LLC is the designated redeveloper for the hotel and the surrounding properties. The agreement includes three properties vital to the plan; in addition to the hotel, it also includes the Potting Shed building and its Spring Street parking lot. All are owned by Romanowski, who said the price for the package of properties is more than $2.5 million.
Romanowski and Cust have reached apparent agreements previously, but signed contracts are now in place, according to both the mayor and Romanowski.
Romanowski said the terms of the sale include contingencies that are common in any typical real estate transaction. The sale will close once those are met, Romanowski said.
Greiner said he will now ‘formally request” that Cust withdraw his request that officials pursue condemnation through eminent domain to acquire the properties. Romanowski said he wishes success to Cust and “will assist in any way I can” to see the project move forward.
The sale may not end Romanowski’s interest in local development. He said he is working “in this area, supporting a different project nearby.”
As Cust’s project inches forward, it appears that borough development attorney Robert Beckelman may remain an advisor to officials. Councilperson Michael Harris, who had introduced a resolution to replace Beckelman, withdrew the draft resolution last night.
Beckelman offered a detailed defense against the allegations Harris made in the draft resolution.
“I don’t make policy,” Beckelman said, or advocate for any particular project. While he said he seeks to avoid politics, “I have now been dragged into the politics” because of the critical Harris resolution.
Beckelman explained two of the lawsuits mentioned in the resolution have “nothing to do with me or the redevelopment” but involve state public records rules. The other lawsuits – which were filed by Friends of Historic Flemington and challenge the redevelopment agreement and the expanded redevelopment area – are pending.
“The redevelopment area lawsuit is briefed and awaiting a trial date,” Beckelman said. “The redevelopment agreement case has been sitting with nothing happening.”
Beckelman said the only court findings so far are “that the Friends’ first redevelopment suit was meritless.”
Beckelman defended the redeveloper’s agreement between Cust and the borough, noting he has “probably negotiated 75, maybe 100 redevelopment agreements” and that those critical of the agreement with Cust may lack a frame of reference. He called the redevelopment a public partnership and “not a negotiation to take the other guy for all his worth, but to accomplish a mutually beneficial successful project.”
Beckelman rejected any notion that he has engaged in intimidation.
“The closest thing to intimidation that I have seen is the drafting of this resolution,” he said, “which falsely and maliciously ... seeks to malign my professional reputation.” He denied the secret meetings alleged in the draft resolution and clarified that he’s paid by the borough, not the redeveloper. Beckelman called the accusation that he does not represent the interests of the borough “false, malicious and libelous” and said blaming him for “creating a hostile and toxic environment in Flemington ... turns the facts upside down
“I have been a vocal proponent and facilitator of the effort to sit down with the Friends and try to find common ground,” the attorney said.
Beckelman said he’d trust the community to “decide who has created such an environment but am confident no one can seriously credit that to me.”
Officials sought to find compromise on the redevelopment plan. Council agreed to hold a special meeting, which the mayor said would seek compromise among the Council members.
"Presumably the discussion would focus on height and historic preservation," the mayor said today. "By law this would be a public meeting, but the purpose would be a Council discussion."
Greiner agreed to the discussions so long as they are in parallel with other steps in the plan.
Councilperson Betsy Driver proposed “a series of charrettes” – stakeholders’ meetings that seek to find compromise.
In such a scenario, participants “Leave your attitude at the door, leave your emotions at the door. We have a job to do. We need to get it done,” Driver said. The result of the series of community meetings – where redevelopment would be the only agenda topic – could then be taken to Cust to help negotiate changes to the redevelopment agreement.
“I have no intention of putting this project on hold while this town starts all over again with a series of pie-in-the sky discussions of, ‘What do we think we really want?’ ” the mayor said. “We have done that before.”
Council set no time or date for any meeting where compromise on the redevelopment plan would be discussed.
Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify the subject of Council's proposed special meeting.