FLEMINGTON, NJ - The long, awaited second reading and public-hearing of Flemington ordinance 2020-2, which creates a mixed-use overlay zone along Route 12, was finally held at the July 13 borough council meeting.

The reading and hearing had originally been scheduled for March 9 at borough hall. However, when more than 60 people arrived at the tiny municipal building to be part of the discussion, the meeting had to be canceled because 49 is the maximum occupancy of the room.

And so the property owners within 200 feet of the proposed mixed-use multi-family overlay district ordinance were again noticed of a meeting and invited to participate in the decision about the future use for the land. The new date was March 25 and the meeting was scheduled to be held at a larger venue, the historic courthouse.

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And then Covid-19 reared its ugly head, and the event again had to be postponed.

So finally, in an online meeting with about 20 people in attendance, the hearing, second reading and vote on the ordinance was held.  

The ordinance establishes a mixed-use and multi-family overlay district in an area that is currently zoned primarily for highway retail and transition commercial businesses. Now, under the new ordinance, those uses will remain viable, however a large list of possible new uses will be added, including townhouse and multi-family units, retail sales and service, restaurants, artisan studios or manufacturing, offices, theaters, museums, galleries, medical offices, banks, personal services, health clubs, specialty beverage establishments, indoor or outdoor recreational facilities, open space, municipal uses and higher education purposes.

The new ordinance maintains current restrictions on density, building height, signage, setbacks, impervious coverage and parking.

The overlay zone applies to properties to the south of Route 12, east of the Paradise Golf Driving Range, and north of the Raritan Township border.

According to Mayor Betsy Driver, this ordinance had been on and off the agenda numerous times in 2019, and was finally ready for adoption.  

In its final form, only land on the south side of Route 12 is included in order to limit negative traffic impacts. She also said that, based on a request by the state, flood-prone properties are excluded from the new land use options.

Although there was support for the establishment of an overlay zone from groups such as the Flemington Community Partnership and Namdar Realty Group, the new owner of Liberty Village, two councilmen raised 11th hour concerns about the lack of specificity in the wording of the ordinance.

Councilman Chris Runion said that while this ordinance is outwardly designed to promote “mixed use,” it doesn’t require it.  

“So all of these lots theoretically could become residential?” he asked.

The mayor confirmed that that was true.

Runion went on to say he isn’t against the overlay per se, but he would like to see it ensure that it requires a mix of uses. He noted that Flemington is the densest municipality in Hunterdon County, so lack of housing is not an issue, but his concern is the loss of commercial properties, like Agway, to residential use.

Councilman Michael Harris said he shares Runion’s concerns.

“We need to set standards because, as we know, a healthy mix of residential and commercial properties makes for a healthy community,” he said.

Councilman Jeremy Long said, “the overlay is the kind of creative thing we want to do to stimulate the economy after the pandemic.”

His comments, however, did not address the issue of commercial versus residential. As the mayor and council president Caitlin Giles-McCormick also did, Long argued that any proposed development would need planning board approval.

Runion was quick to point out that the planning board will make its future decision for approvals based on the ordinance that the council passes, so if the council doesn’t limit one type of development – such as residential – then it won’t have the teeth to deny an application.

Harris drove that point home explaining, “The problem is the planning board’s critical review and not upholding standards for the borough.

Instead, we’re desperate for growth. When projects come across, maybe we should step back and say ‘thank you for bringing this to us, here are the changes we’d like to see to align this project with our vision for Flemington.’”

“We need to be diligent in our efforts,” added Runion. “I’m not against this ordinance, but we need to ask, could this be improved so that we get that economic benefit down the road. Because I think losing commercial property is not heading us in the direction of economic prosperity.”

Giles-McCormick said that additional residential growth isn’t concerning.

“The status quo in Flemington cannot be maintained,” she said, adding that many existing businesses are saying there isn’t enough density for their businesses to thrive.

But again, both Runion and Harris said they aren’t calling for no residential growth, just a cap that would pave the way for the “mix” called for in the overlay. They suggested a requirement of at least 10 percent commercial properties in the new zone.

In the end, concern about having to re-notice the surrounding property owners via certified mail, at a cost of approximately $600, was the deciding factor for not tabling the ordinance and calling in the planner to discuss options.

The overlay ordinance passed 4-2, with Runion and Harris casting the dissenting votes.