FLEMINGTON, N.J. – Jack Cust’s plan to redevelop the Union Hotel and surrounding properties took a big step forward yesterday when the Planning Board granted final approval for his Flemington’s Center Urban Renewal, LLC’s Courthouse Square application.

Board member Edna Pedrick was absent. Brian Budney was the only board member to vote against the plan. He argued that the traffic study conducted by the applicant was “not expansive enough ... to issue a final site plan approval.”

Board member Mary Melfi voted in favor of the application, but said she’d like Cust to return to Borough Council “and see what they can do about the street pattern ... we all agree that traffic should not be dumping on Broad Street.”

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Some members of the public, including Marcia Karrow, Councilpersons Michael Harris and Betsy Driver, Joey Novick and Robert Shore, asked that the board limit its vote to a preliminary approval only.

But Planning Board Chair Todd Cook said the height of the buildings, the density of the project, lot sizes and setbacks would all be defined in a preliminary approval, rendering withholding a final approval of dubious benefit to the borough.

“We cannot change the redevelopment plan,” Cook said. “All we can do is look at the application as it relates to the laws of this borough, which are governed by the redevelopment plan.”

Many speakers whole-heartedly supported the redevelopment plan.

Karl Lackenmacher, who owns multiple properties in the borough, had perhaps the evening’s shortest comment.

“I’ve lived and worked on Main Street since 1962,” he said. “I support the Courthouse Square project. I ask you to approve the site plan tonight. Thank you.”

Resident Tony Previte said of the plan, “I find Jack Cust ... not guilty of trying to kill this town.” Rich Cornelison urged approval. “Let’s not wait another 10 years,” he said.

Ron Van Horn also argued for approval, and dismissed those who said they haven’t had their questions answered. “You can’t cover all of the ‘what-ifs,’ ” he said.

Some members of the public said they were denied opportunities to ask questions of the applicant’s professionals.

“I’ve attended every single meeting” of the Planning Board’s public hearings, Karrow said. “I tried to ask questions of professionals and was not given the opportunity.”

Lois Stewart persisted with her comments despite Cook’s effort to limit her to five minutes.

Cook gaveled her without effect.

“Is there an officer in the court?” he asked, “because this woman is out of order ... we set five minutes to be fair to everybody.”

“If you want you can carry me out of here and take me to jail” she told Cook, as he called for a recess in the proceedings.

When Cook returned, others yielded their five minutes of allotted time to speak so that Stewart could resume.

Lee Roth, an attorney who restored his Main Street offices, said there has been “considerable interest” in the Union Hotel project by other developers, “but it has been impossible for those interested to do anything because our local government has tied all of these properties up in the political process ... under the redevelopment laws.

George Dilts, Cust’s attorney, objected to Roth’s remarks.

Some, including Harris, questioned the Planning Board’s scheduling of special meetings to accelerate the approval process.

“This has been eight years in the making,” Cook said. “So I don’t think it’s been fast. I think it’s been painfully slow.”

Cust’s project does not have carte blanche. Dilts noted that the approval has at least 10 pages of conditions, including Melfi’s request that no demolition or construction be permitted until all of the conditions are met.  

After the hearing, Cust said he was ready to move forward. Crafting the construction documents is next, he said. That could be followed by a groundbreaking next spring or summer, with the project completed – in one phase – in about two years.

But Shore had words of caution. The plan gives “enormous latitude to the developer,” he said.  And he’s concerned “about the lawsuits which are yet to be resolved, and the ones (that are) sure to follow.”