WARREN, NJ - With a room full with supporters of the King George Inn, the Warren Township Planning Board voted, 10-0, to recommend the property be designated as a non-condemnation area in need of redevelopment at their meeting on Monday night.
Many of the supporters wore Burger King crowns revised to say, “Save the KGI." At the time of the meeting, a petition to "Save the King George Inn had 1,178 signatures.
On the agenda was the Redevelopment Area Public Hearing for 181 Mount Bethel Road, Block 78, lot 12, the King George Inn property.
Warren Township Planning Board chairman Peter Villani explained to the crowd that the meeting was about a redevelopment plan and that although there's been a lot of talk of the possibility of apartments or stores or offices going in there, that discussion might, " be for another day but that's not for tonight."
Warren Township Planner John Chadwick explained that the creation of a redevelopment zone allows the township to control aspects of development down to the appearance and architecture of the buildings and gives the township, “a heck of a lot more control over what goes on.”
“We don’t know what is going to happen here, but we don’t want the building to disappear in the process,” Chadwick said.
The Township Committee passed a resolution in December authorizing the Planning Board to conduct a preliminary investigation into whether the property is an area in need of redevelopment, and to make a recommendation back to the committee.
Chadwick said that he's found the building to be in need of redevelopment but the township has not authorized the building inspector to inspect the building, because he believes the inspector would find the building to be derelict and would then be obliged to recommend that the building be demolished.
“We, being the Township of Warren, don’t own that building," Chadwick said. That isn’t going to be our investment. Somebody is going to make that decision, and we’re going to try to influence its outcome with all the efforts we have.”
Maximilian James Hayden III, whose family owned and operated the King George Inn, testified that the building can, and should, be saved, if township officials think outside the box and find an “adaptive re-use” for the building.
Hayden is an architect, and is chair of the Hopewell Township Historic Preservation Commission where he now lives.
After Hayden's comments, committeeman Sal DiBianca said that as a Warren resident for 42 years living within walking distance of the King George Inn, and using it for many occasions, he appreciated his comments.
Hayden, who started the petition to "Save the King George Inn," said residents care about the building’s history and that the board should read the more than 500 comments on the petition.
Hayden's family owned and operated the KGI for 35 years. He says on the petition website, " it had a long and storied past before we owned it as it dates back to the late 1700's. It has been a hotel, a restaurant, a post office and the town hall, a venue for opera, moving pictures, a summer retreat and services for a church. It is a piece of Warren's history, interwoven with its people and its landscape. If you believe that it's an important building and should be preserved please consider attending the meeting. Old buildings can be rehabilitated and made vital again. Once a building is gone the history often also vanishes with it. A show of support will strengthen the resolve of the town to do the right thing."
Woodrow Wilson made his 1912 campaign speech from the inn’s front porch, and one of the speakers said her grandmother was there to shake his hand.
“We’re requesting a conversation,” Hayden said. “We’re requesting a team approach. So often development is done in a vacuum. Sure, everyone likes money, everyone likes to make money but history, no one owns it. We all own it and we all have a share in it.”
Villani urged residents to come back whenever the process returns to the Planning Board.
“At some point in the near future we’re going to get it back again,” Villani said. “And when we do get it back again, we’d appreciate you coming back up because if we can incorporate some of what you just talked about into whatever’s going to be put there, I think it’ll be a win for everybody.”
Betty Grossweiler, a Warren resident of 63 years, who said her husband had been a resident for 85 years, said, “I’ve seen a lot of historic things torn down, like the schoolhouse on Mount Bethel Road, that was heartbreaking. Now another thing? Come on, don’t keep tearing things down."
Historic Sites Committee Chairman Rory Britt asked whether the building can be saved. "We don’t know whether it can be saved,” Chadwick said. “It isn’t ruled out, but we don’t know. The best thing I can give you is a definite maybe.”
Britt said the Historic Sites Committee supports the Planning Board’s recommendation. When Hayden spoke he said that he " wished you (the town) would allow the Historic Sites Committee to become a commission so they would have some tooth."
Villani said the board will do what it can to preserve the site.
“Whatever happens, we’re not going to lose sight of the fact that this is a very important piece of property,” Villani said. “And we’re going to try our best with the help of directing whoever the developer is. We have leverage in getting them to try to put something together that does not eliminate the feeling and look of what the King George Inn was.”
If the Warren Township Committee designates the property as a non-condemnation area in need of redevelopment, the issue returns to the Planning Board to work out the specifics of a redevelopment plan.
After the meeting Hayden said,
"We spoke and they listened. This is how it's supposed to work - and work is what we all have ahead to ensure that this building is saved; however, the planning board laid the groundwork with their vote to approve the redevelopment plan with a non-condemnation provision and a promise to work to preserve the building. So many eloquent and passionate speakers on both sides of the table. It should make us all proud to have been active in this first step and spur us on to greater actions. I am deeply indebted to you all."
The next meeting of the Warren Township Committee is Thursday, Feb. 16. Township Committeeman Gary DiNardo, who sits on the Planning Board, said the committee will vote on the recommendation at an upcoming meeting, though not necessarily the next meeting.
The next meeting of the planning board is scheduled for Feb. 27.