FLEMINGTON, NJ – As progress to redevelop the Union Hotel and its surrounding properties remains elusive, some officials here are joining with some residents in seeking a change to the process.
Jack Cust’s Flemington Urban Center Renewal LLC is the designated redeveloper for the hotel, which is part of the Courthouse Square project. It includes redeveloping the landmark hotel to include 100 rooms, and building more than 200 multi-family units, along with about 45,000 square feet of educational/medical space and more than 32,000 square feet of retail space. It would also include parking for 760 vehicles.
The plan won Planning Board approval in October, but remains the subject of lawsuits, including those filed by the Friends of Historic Flemington and, more recently, a suit against the Friends filed by the hotel’s owner.
“We must create a new approach to end the paralysis,” said Councilperson Susan Peterson at the July 8 Borough Council meeting. “Nothing has happened in six months.”
“We have got to go out on a limb for this,” she said. “It is the most important pressing issue of our time.”
Peterson, who also owns Teaberry’s restaurant in the borough, said she's not happy to learn that “more businesses are considering closing on our Main Street" and that as business owner, “I feel the sadness.”
Peterson said the Council’s own Redevelopment Committee “for a variety of reasons, has not brought the sides together … I think it’s time to move on.”
Peterson wants Council to, “Work with a neutral, impartial facilitator to change the meeting dynamics” to resolve what she called “a large, deep divide.” The facilitator or consultant “must be completely neutral and un-lobbyable,” she said, and the “ultimate goal is for the project to proceed unencumbered via a settlement featuring a compromise.”
“Can we possibly admit we need help?” she asked. She seeks a, “bindable, enforceable agreement” between Cust and the Friends and said she feels “deep hurt and sickness over what’s happening at the center core of our Main Street. I want to get beyond this.”
Attorneys aren’t needed at the meetings, Peterson said. “Playing it safe has proven to be too limiting,” she said, and has cost “time, money, loss of morale.”
Although Council didn’t act on her recommendation, Council President Michael Harris announced he’ll change his approach.
In April, Harris said he was asked to “voluntarily recuse myself from any discussion regarding the Friends of Historic Flemington” based on an alleged “pre-existing relationship" with the Friends.
While he initially agreed, Harris said he’s since been removed from all discussions regarding the Courthouse Square project, not just those involving the Friends, “all on the basis of legal advice that it’s safest to recuse oneself rather than face potential litigation.” The goal was “to protect the Borough,” he said.
“People elected me to bring this project into compliance with the master plan … while also making sure the financial agreement is in the borough’s best interest, and make sure that there’s transparency in the process,” Harris said. Now, in the best interest of the Borough and those who voted for him, he's “no longer going to voluntarily recuse myself” from the Courthouse Square redevelopment discussions.
Resident Steve Tuccio told Harris, “I admire and commend you for your position on recusal” and asked, “What would it take to de-designate Jack Cust as the re-developer?”
“It’s a complicated issue. It’s not a question … the Council or Mayor should be speaking to, because there are contracts that the governing body entered into,” said Borough attorney Frank Whittlesey. “There are contracts that precede this governing body … that this governing body is left with and has to deal with.
“We are left with certain legal obligations that we have to meet for the protection of the borough,” Whittlesey said. “To the extent we can work around them, with them, for the betterment of the Borough, that’s what, to my understanding, the Mayor and Council are doing.”