FLEMINGTON, NJ – The designated redeveloper of the Union Hotel and surrounding properties unveiled a scaled-back plan for the project – called Courthouse Square – at last night’s meeting of Borough Council.
“I was hopeful tonight to come here and announce that we have reached settlement” with the Friends of Historic Flemington group, which has sued the borough over the development plan, said Jack Cust, whose Flemington Urban Renewal, LLC already has Planning Board approval for the project. “We thought we were putting forth some great ideas” that should have resolved the conflict, he said.
“Unfortunately, I’m not here to report that, but I continue to be optimistic” and hope that settlement discussions will continue and resolve the legal dispute.
The new plans show reduced building heights. The south building would be reduced by two stories in the main portion of the building, and by about three stories - about 32 feet - at the corner of Chorister Place and Spring Street, Cust said.
The height of the north building would be cut by two stories; a “minor section” behind the hotel would be reduced by one story, but would not be visible from Main Street, Cust said.
Other changes include cutting building height at the corner of Bloomfield Avenue and Spring Street by three stories; removing the proposed 45,000 square foot medical and education building and replacing it with residential housing at the same height; and preserving the Potting Shed building.
The plan “would now preserve the three most important historical buildings on Main Street,” Cust said: The Union Hotel, Hunterdon County Bank Building and Potting Shed.
The revised proposal “substantially reduces parking and traffic and maintains the historic streetscape in its present form,” Cust said, “while still providing the same tax revenues to the borough.” And because the plan is subject to a Payment in Lieu of Taxes agreement, it would not be subject to a property tax appeal.
Cust emphasized that would be unlike what happened with Liberty Village, which had been assessed at $25 million, Cust said, but which recently sold for $2.7 million. The PILOT “ensures these revenues are guaranteed over the life of the project regardless of its financial success.” The borough’s share of annual revenue is currently about $65,000 from the Courthouse Square properties, he said, while Liberty Village currently generates about $100,000. Upon completion, Courthouse Square will generate about $600,000 annually, Cust said.
Frank Banisch has helped mediate the settlement effort with the Friends, Cust said, and he noted the irony.
“Frank was one of the original objectors to our plan,” Cust said. But the more concessions to which Cust agreed, “the more the demands kept increasing,” he said.
Cust said the Friends are “not sincere in their settlement efforts … one can only wonder whether this group has an ulterior motive.”
Cust called upon the public to encourage the Friend’s board members - Gary Schotland, Lois Stewart, Joanne Braun, Kenneth Cummings and Chris Pickell – to “resolve these lawsuits that are now holding the town hostage” and damaging borough property values.
While Cust’s presentation wasn’t on the agenda, many in favor of the plan had apparently been given advance notice. That included Flemington Community Partnership Chair Bob King, Director Robin Lapidus, staffer Kathy Guzman and Board Members Timothy Bebout and Paul Marciano; Hunterdon Chamber of Commerce CEO Chris Phelan; Hunterdon United Way CEO Bonnie Duncan; and Borough Planning Board Chair Todd Cook and Vice Chair Susan Englehardt.
Property owner Rich Cornelison pleaded with Council and Flemington Community Partnership “to support the turnaround of Flemington and move forward” with the revised project.
Bebout, who owns Main Street Manor here and is an FCP board member, praised Cust’s revisions. “The Friends of Historic Flemington are not acting like Friends,” he said. “Rather than hiding behind lawsuits … come out in the open and let’s have a dialogue. Take a look at the project.”
Marciano said the Cust plan “saves the buildings and the town.” In a democracy where “majority rules, I’m having a hard time with a small minority of people deciding the direction of this town,” Marciano said. He asked residents to reach out to the Friends and encourage settlement.
Braun said she’s proud of being a Friend and “very happy” about the revised plans, and said a settlement letter has been sent to Council explaining the terms her group would find acceptable to end the lawsuits.
Edna Pedrick, who just celebrated her 94th birthday, said she has “more memories of Flemington being a booming town than anybody in this town.” She said, “it’s a great plan to save this town.”
Stewart said the Friends “are a not a small minority … look at voting results for the last three elections.” The victors “all ran on a platform of making this a better project,” she said.
“Nobody wants a deal more than I do,” Stewart said, but she questioned how advocates of the plan had advance notice of Cust’s revised proposal last night while others did not.
Resident Steve Tuccio said the lack of advance notice of Cust’s revised plans, “Clearly looked like a way to suppress the general public” from participating. “I felt ambushed.”
Cust said he was pleased that Braun and Stewart “seemed receptive” to the changes and offered an “open invitation to come to my office, no attorneys, and sit down and go through this.” He said he felt a settlement was close.
“We should get together and get this done,” Cust said. “I think something gets lost in translation when attorneys get involved … if we just sat around the table we could get it done.”