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  • Writer's pictureLee Roth

The Court Room, the Ballot Box, and the Market Place (1 of 4)

The Court Room, the Ballot Box, and the Market Place (1 of 4)

A Government Master Plan

The local government of the Borough of Flemington expended considerable resources in developing a Master Plan to guide and control the use of property in the Borough. Within a year of adopting their Master Plan the Mayor, and some members of the governing body he leads, decided to completely abandon their master plan. In the opinion of the Mayor, and several of his supporters, as apparent from actions taken by the governing body, it was determined by them to be in the interest of the Borough, including its voters, residents, and taxpayers, to attract development dollars to the community by abandoning the Master Plan, waiving some zoning restrictions, and offering financial incentives to their selected investor. They essentially declaired the center of Flemington to be a slum.

The legal system in New Jersey makes it clear that there is no requirement that any local government enact zoning or other laws that restrict or constrain the development and use of property. If there are to be no zoning laws there would be no need for a Master Plan. I do not know of any municipality that has not enacted zoning laws and a Master Plan. Government everywhere, at every level, likes control. So we have zoning laws.

I have spent much of my career helping property owners deal with the zoning law restrictions imposed upon them, and imposed on property they own. Although there are exceptions, I tend to support the idea that property owners should be allowed to do what they will with property they own. I also believe that sensible property owners realize that in development the marketplace will not support outlandish ideas that are not in keeping with the traditions of the community in which their property is found, zoning restrictions or not.

Originally zoning was conceived of as a way to protect property owners from outrageous use of neighboring properties by others. One of the early zoning cases prohibited the owner of a property from constructing a noxious smelling pig rendering plant in an upscale residential neighborhood. There are other examples. One might not want a gasoline service station, or a storage facility for explosives, to be constructed in a residential neighborhood, or in proximity to a childcare center, a hospital, or school. Thus, zoning was expanded in concept, and in practice, to provide such limitations in relation to the use of property.

Flemington first passed zoning laws in or about 1956. Some years later the government decided to protect its historic traditions by taking additional control. It created a system by which new construction, and renovations to existing properties, had to be reviewed by a historic commission as one of the steps in obtaining construction approvals and permits. I have sat through meetings where people were told they had to use authentic materials in doing work on property in the historic areas of the borough. I recall an individual being told he could not use vinyl or aluminum siding on an historic building in downtown Flemington. This was all done in the spirit of “protecting” our local history and traditions. For reasons of safety and tradition height restrictions were also imposed.

Desperate Situations Lead To Desperate Doings

Some of the leadership in Flemington noted that the owners of the Union Hotel property were not doing well as a business enterprise. Perhaps management was not what it had been. Prior owners of the hotel property, the Flemington Fur Company, had leased the property to various operators. When one operator had hard times he or it was replaced. The Fur Company eventually sold the property, but they were allowed to divide off the parking area and they were allowed to fence it for the exclusive use of the Fur Company. Convenient parking for the Hotel property was gone, with government approval.

The hotel part of the building had not been used as a hotel for years. Over that time the hotel portion of the building, the upper floors, had been allowed to degenerate into poor condition. It would take considerable work, and the expenditure of considerable resources, to bring the hotel portion of the building into commercially usable condition, even though the structural part of the building was sound. Only the ground floor restaurant and bar facility had been used for many years.

The county government, located in buildings across the street from the hotel property, constructed new facilities a couple of miles outside of town. They moved most of their employees to that new facility. There was an observable negative impact on the lunch trade, especially, and retail in general, in the borough, including lunch trade in the hotel restaurant.

As time passed, and as the nature of business in the borough has evolved, we are left with the question of what was the Borough of Flemington 60 years ago and what is the nature of the Borough of Flemington today? And perhaps we should consider what should it be today. (to be continued)

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