FLEMINGTON, NJ - While there are still many hurdles to be cleared, a state Superior Court decision has moved the sale of the Flemington Bank building property, and with it the larger and even more controversial Courthouse Square Redevelopment Plan, one step closer to reality.
The appellate division court’s finding was in response to a lawsuit filed by the Friends of Historic Flemington alleging that the state Department of Environmental Protection’s approval of the sale of the borough-owned Main Street Bank building was procedurally defective and not supported by the evidence.
In their finding, appellate court judges Douglas Fasciale, Garry Rothstadt and Scott Moynihan wrote that FHF, “failed to meet its burden of proof” that the DEP's approval of the sale was arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable or otherwise defective.
At the Feb. 24 council meeting, Mayor Betsy Driver announced, “the court upheld the sale” but she explained that there are still a number of conditions the buyer must meet before the deal is finalized.
FHF, a grassroots non-profit, is self-described as an "advocacy group comprised of citizens, professionals and business and property owners concerned about the continuing degradation and loss of Flemington’s historic buildings and the impact on the historic district’s integrity.”
FHF Trustee and local architect Christopher Pickell reacted to the ruling.
“Of course, we’re disappointed,” he said. “We believe the [DEP] process was flawed, but all of our eggs are not in one basket. We have stronger cases coming down.”
Those court cases can’t be heard soon enough for the FHF. According to Pickell, the Union Hotel is “falling down” and the developer who pledged to restore and preserve it is doing nothing.
“The hotel roof was damaged by Hurricane Sandy, and we can’t get anyone to spend the $40,000 to repair it,” he said.
Pickell added that the FHF is trying to preserve history and prevent an “oversized development from ruining our downtown.”
The property named in the FHF lawsuit is 90-96 Main Street and the adjacent parking lots, which includes the bank building. Built in 1870, the bank is part of a three-story brick and stone structure listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places.
The FHF challenge was in response to Flemington’s May 23, 2017, application to the DEP’s Historic Preservation Office to approve its sale of the publicly-owned bank building and adjacent parking lots to developer Jack Cust.
According to Flemington's application to the HPO, the redevelopment would preserve the historic façade of the bank and remodel its interior to include 4,200 square feet of retail space and eight residential units. It also called for the removal of the stone first floor façade that was added in the early 20th century, the restoration of the building's brick exterior and the replacement of the building's windows.
Some of the compromises and plan changes the FHF is seeking are additional height reductions and additional considerations for historic treatment and preservation; ensuring that the project and the remainder of Main Street has sufficient parking availability to service the new and existing businesses and residents; ensuring that adequate buffers, setbacks, green space and trees are provided to protect neighboring residential areas; and reducing the density to a more appropriate amount for the site.
The agreement between Flemington and Cust was inherited by the current governing body. They have been advised by the borough attorney that “taking positions in settlement at odds with those taken by FCUR [Mr. Cust’s company] would risk a claim of breach of contract and subject the Borough to claims for damage.” Avoiding potential litigation leaves the borough little opportunity for resolving the controversy and pleasing all of the stakeholders.
On his website, Cust focuses on the benefits of the project, including an enhanced lifestyle, with luxury apartments, easier access to higher education with the Georgian Court University campus onsite, additional medical services and support, the creation of jobs and the preservation to their old glory of the Union Hotel and Bank building.
“Courthouse Square is a solution for a wonderful town with great history looking to reestablish itself as one of New Jersey’s most exciting places to live, work and play,” he states on his website.
Cust did not respond to an additional request for comment.
So although the appellate court ruling struck a blow, there are still conditions, terms and lawsuits to be resolved that could alter the final outcome.