FLEMINGTON, NJ - As is typical in most New Jersey towns, Flemington has its group of “regulars” at its semi-monthly council meetings – they are resident watchdogs who question authority and push to participate in the process of government.
For the new council - a mix of freshmen and veteran officials - the continual challenge to their decisions can be daunting, especially since the issues facing Flemington are not unique nor are they recent.
Mayor Betsy Driver and the six-member council began 2020 with at least four lawsuits on the table, some personnel issues, the ongoing contract negotiations with Comcast, shared services options, a water tower in desperate need of replacement and a number of development and preservation issues that need to be addressed.
For the residents who spoke at the Jan. 27 meeting, a lack of open dialogue on these topics is an issue.
“This council is not transparent,” said resident Steve Previte. “We need to know what’s going on before it’s written in stone.”
Yet the council’s hands are tied when it comes to discussion on litigation and personnel issues.
And although most towns have these same rules regarding meeting participation, Flemington residents also complained about giving their home addresses and being limited to “three minutes of democracy” when speaking during the public comment portion of the meeting.
One of the ongoing issues in the borough is the preservation of the Union Hotel.
Previte questioned whether the hotel owner, Jack Cust, is being charged for violating property maintenance laws.
Driver explained that she is trying to work with Cust because one of his remedy options would be to demolish the building.
What if he applies to the county for a demolish permit and it’s approved, she asked. Then the building will be gone.
Resident Tony Critelli said the town has been a dumping ground for years, and questioned whether the council has any goals for 2020.
“Do you have something to shoot for?” he asked.
According to council president Caitlin Giles-McCormick, a governance retreat is scheduled for February. It will be led by borough attorney Tara St. Angelo and will include procedural direction under Robert’s Rules of Order and the Sunshine Law.
Giles-McCormick said she is confident it will also aid the council in shaping its direction.
“I think this retreat will help us define our goals,” she said.
It’s likely a plan for land use and development will be a big part of the council’s goals as the borough, steeped in history, tries to hang on to its past while trying to find its place in the landscape of a marketplace that is evolving almost daily.
An ordinance that could have great impact on the borough came up for a vote Jan. 27. In its original form, it permitted cigar bars, cigar lounges, social clubs and possible theater uses in the downtown business and downtown II business districts, and the Village Artisan Shopping District.
It was approved in its first reading after the cigar bars and cigar lounges were pulled. On the advice of the attorney, the language of the law for those types of businesses should be specific to an establishment that will allow indoor smoking.
“You have an awesome responsibility representing both the businesses and the people of Flemington,” resident Robert Shore told the council. “We have the lowest median income in the county and this town is a bloody mess.”
Noting that the current council didn’t create the problems, he added, “It’s been this way for a decade.”
With a slew of variances being discussed and interest from developers on the table, the borough council has its work cut out.
Shortly after the council meeting, a notification went out that there will be a special meeting held at the Hunterdon Courthouse at 7 p.m. March 25 for the public to view a concept plan for the Nilkanth Agway site. Cardinal Capital Management is proposing a mixed-use development project.
Questioned about the new water tower, which has been pending for almost two years, the mayor confirmed the site plan was approved.
“I expect there will be shovels in the ground sometime this year,” Driver said.
Members of the public also repeatedly brought up the borough’s only cable company, Comcast. Shore said Comcast is a problem, as residents need a contract that meets the needs of seniors and indigents.
Flemington had a 15-year contract with Comcast, but it expired in 2019. According to Driver, the time to attempt to bring another cable company in is long past.
Century Link owns the lines and hardware, she explained, and it’s a process to work out that kind of a deal.
“What people have to understand is that if Comcast pulled out now,” said Driver, “no one in town would have cable.”