FLEMINGTON, NJ – Debate over lawsuits filed by Friends of Historic Flemington took center stage at Monday’s Borough Council meeting, and the threat of a new suit looms as Council seeks to settle the claims with what Councilperson Jeff Doshna called “a settlement that gets something built that we can all be proud of.”
“I would like to share my frustration publicly,” said Councilperson Caitlin Giles-McCormick. She said she has “continually” sought to seek from the group what it might seek in a settlement, but that seven weeks has passed without a response. “I am always willing to talk and discuss,” she said.
The Friends group has several suits pending regarding a plan by Jack Cust’s Flemington Urban Renewal LLC to redevelop the landmark Union Hotel and surrounding properties. The most recent suit was filed in January and joined four other pending suits or appeals.
Gary Schotland, speaking on behalf of the Friends, told Council that a message relayed to him through resident Richard Giffen from Mayor Betsy Driver was that, “If the Friends of Historic Flemington don’t drop their lawsuits, the Union Hotel will be demolished.”
“That has no basis in reality,” the Mayor answered. “Mr. Giffen actually asked me if I could reach out to the insurance company and encourage a settlement. What I told him is, ‘No.’”
The conversation was at a “private event,” Driver said, “and I’m disappointed that he would take what I thought was a private conversation when he asked me to interfere” with a court case.
Giffen called the Mayor’s response, “Outrageously wrong.”
Schotland cited the criminal trespass charges that were filed against the so-called “Flemington Four” – and which have since been dismissed – as an example of “threats and intimidation, and blocking our due process.” He said that if the hotel were to be demolished, “that there is indication of collusion going on,” implying a Civil Rights violation that could lead to another lawsuit.
If that were to happen, Schotland warned Council they would each be “personally responsible” for legal fees and fines because “the municipality, by law, cannot pay your legal bills” in a Civil Rights suit.
“It is in everybody’s best interests that that building stay standing,” said the Mayor of the hotel. That’s because without the hotel, Cust would lose the state Historic Preservation Office approval to buy the 90-100 Main Street building, which is also part of the project.
Borough attorney Frank Whittlesey noted that it was at a county Construction Board of Appeals hearing that hotel owner Steve Romanowski “made the threat that he was going to apply for a demolition permit.”
Resident Tony Previte wants to see the suits get before a judge. “Can we just cut it right here and now with the Friends and just say, ‘It’s over?’ he asked.
“That is what’s happening,” said Giles-McCormick. “That is going forward.”
“It’s a stall tactic,” Previte said. “That’s all it is.”
Driver said she wanted to “correct” social media posts and a letter to the editor that a structural inspection of the hotel was conducted on May 9.
“That was incorrect,” she said. “What happened on the ninth was a quick walk-through by the contractor who is being hired to secure the building against the elements.” She said a structural engineer “continues to assess the Union Hotel structure in accordance with the resolution adopted by the Hunterdon County Construction Board of Appeals. I did check that report is not out yet.”
Not so, said Giffen. “A respected, experienced engineer,” has examined the hotel, he said, and Romanowski told him, “He reported back that the hotel was in good condition.
“The problem I have is that there is so much misinformation out there, so much spin,” Giffen said. “Why don’t we try to keep to the truth, tell people the true story?”
The new inspection is being conducted on behalf of Cust, something resident Robert Shore doesn’t trust.
“You know the Cust engineer is going to be biased,” Shore said. “We know that already.” The only purpose of another evaluation is “to obfuscate the whole process,” he said. “And you guys are allowing it to happen” he told Council.
Doshna said the conversation made him “really sad … Every single person sitting up on this Council agrees the approved project could be better. The mechanism for getting it better is through discussion and settlement.
“The fact that there’s a lawsuit gives us an opportunity to have those conversations,” Doshna said, adding that he hopes others involved with the Friends have “cooler heads and we continue to have those conversations.
“I live at 197 Main Street. Come knock on my door,” Doshna said. “Come sit on my porch, and we’ll have a conversation about what can be done. There needs to be dialogue, there needs to be compromise.”