Government has tied all of these properties up in a political process
I attended a Flemington Planning Board meeting this past Monday. The Board had been rushing through the approval of a huge project that is way out of scale with the Historic district where it is proposed to be located in the center of town, just across the street from my office. It is proposed to be 7 stories high (original proposal was 8 stories high) in a district that limits other property owners to build 4 stories in height. It will, if built, add 800 or more cars to our narrow street system. Part of the claim offered in support of the project is that there is no alternative to preventing the death of the town. Part of the claim by the developer, and the Mayor and his supporters, is that it will be a great economic benefit to the community. It is at best a controversial project. If given time I would have expressed my view that there are alternatives that would be better suited for our community. No one was allowed more than 5 minutes to express their thoughts relating to this proposed 90 to 100 million dollar project (the picture is of a police officer who was directed to remove a neighbor to the proposed building who was exceeding her 5 minutes of comment time) that will likely shut the town now for years and cost more than it brings in under the agreement signed by the Mayor with his selected developer. The following is what I would have liked to have said if given the opportunity:
My property is within 200 feet of the proposed project
I am Lee Roth. Most of you here know me. A few may not. I own property at 91 Main Street just across the street from the historic Hunterdon County National Bank building and the Flemington police station. My property is within 200 feet of the proposed project that you consider tonight. My property received a County planning award when I redeveloped it a little more than 10 years ago.
I've been around a long time. I graduated from Flemington high school in 1955. I returned to Flemington 10 years later and established my law practice in town. Although I lived on Church Street during the years I was in high school, college, and law school, I have settled with my wife and family four miles out of town in Raritan Township. My roots in Hunterdon County go back to the time my great-grandfather was discharged from the Civil War and settled in the County.
In addition to my interest in property at 91 Main St. I once owned the property at 8 Main Street, converting it from the 1935 supermarket, five and dime, and shoe repair facility that it started out to be. I acquired it with partners. We upgraded the front of the building to what you see today. We acquired a rundown residence next door, occupied by welfare families that cost the town more than the taxes collected, and replaced it with the parking lot that is there now.
Mega development is not a requirement
Dr. Ferrari became my partner in the 8 Main project. Eventually he and his brother bought my interest in that building. Together with Fred I bought the building at 1 Main St. and eventually sold my interest in that property to the then president of the Flemington Fur company. That property, and our ownership, has an interesting history to be discussed at another time. Today it is one of the best presented historic buildings on Main Street.
I have been a member of the Board of Directors of four different banks and have been a member of the banking law section of the New Jersey Bar Association. Those experiences have given me the opportunity to be part of financing a number of development projects.
I've been the attorney for a number of developers. Coppermine Village in Flemington is one of the projects that I shepherded through the approval process, including a court challenge by the Flemington government that I defeated, to its completion and occupancy.
I represented the developers of Flemington South Estates, Concord Ridge, Stonegate, South Main Village, Village Commons, Woodside Farms and other residential developments. I've obtained zoning approvals in the course of my law practice for gas stations, fast food companies, cellular communication towers, and other projects. I have the background and experience to feel comfortable in saying that a mega development is not a requirement of feasible development, and repurposing of property, in Flemington.
Flemington does not need a mega seven or eight story building
I am convinced that Flemington does not need a mega seven or eight story building in the middle of our historic town in order to revitalize itself. I hear from people, and I read on social media, that the proposed project is necessary for two reasons. The first is that unless the four properties in play fronting on Main Street are redeveloped together, that the project would not be big enough to be economical and to work for any investors. That is not true.
The second reason that I hear is that those properties have been idle for a long time because there is no interest or possibility of repurposing or redeveloping those properties except for the current developer who came along proposing the megaproject that you consider tonight.
Government has tied all of these properties up
There has been considerable interest during that time. But it has been impossible for those interested to do anything, because our local government has tied all of these properties up in the political process it has engaged in under New Jersey redevelopment laws. It entered into a redeveloper agreement that in effect gave the selected redeveloper a free option on all of the property before he had a contract to buy any of the property.
I had a discussion with the prior owner of the property at 82 Main St. He told me that he had a tenant lined up for the property and was about to sign a lease when the borough government expanded the redevelopment area to include his building. At the lease signing his prospective tenant backed out of the transaction and did not sign the lease for fear that after becoming established in the property he would be put out of it through a condemnation proceeding.
The then owner of the building found himself in a position, without the tenant for income from the building, facing foreclosure of his mortgage. He lost the building. A bank took it over.
Following the foreclosure two investors came to me and proposed to buy the building from the lender who then owned the property. The property went under contract to them, but while in their due diligence period, they had to cancel their contract because of uncertainty with financing and their investors in view of the redeveloper agreement between the Borough and its selected redeveloper, your applicant tonight.
He and his lawyer were told he could not proceed
I understand that the owner of the potting shed building, the historic Lynn building, the Nevius Brothers department store building, came to you, the planning board, proposing a development project including converting the upper floors to residential use with the possibility of adding one floor to take the building to the height allowed by the Flemington master plan. The report I received is that he and his lawyer were told he could not proceed with his application because of the redevelopment agreement with your present applicant. The owner therefore did not proceed under those circumstances.
A friend of mine referred an investor to me who asked me to present an offer to the owner of the hotel building, and the neighboring potting shed building, on his behalf. His plan was to carry out what had been proposed in relation to those two buildings by the second redeveloper, who, having not been properly qualified financially when selected, failed to raise the needed funds for his proposed project.
My client offered, in writing, an immediate deposit and $2 million cash to the owner of those two buildings with a closing to take place before the end of September of this year. The rebuilding and initial opening of a ground floor restaurant was to take place as soon as possible after closing. The offer was rejected, I am told, in favor of more money promised by your applicant tonight. My client, and a celebrity grade school friend, my client told me, were prepared to invest $8 million in equity to move their project forward.
We need not call for the destruction of our history
Based on all of this, this interest of smaller developers, causes me to conclude, and to say to you, that we need not call for the destruction of our history, to revitalize the center of our town.
Do I favor development on Main Street? Of course. I have not talked to anyone who disagrees. Can we redevelop our central business district? Of course we can. People that have talked to me just want development to fit in, to be authentic, development that makes sense financially but does not strip us of our unique character as Flemington.
If done right, and in keeping with who we are, my property will be worth more. If done wrong my property will be worth less. A six or seven or eight story building across the street will mean that light and air will be blocked from my building and from my neighbors. The sun will never shine on the front of our properties. We will all live or work in a construction area or zone that will be very tight, and likely to close down much of Flemington for at least several years. Those conditions may cause a number of our small business owners to go out of business. I cannot imagine what it will be like living on Spring Street all of that construction time.
Financial costs that all tax payers will face
I have not even addressed the financial costs that all tax payers will face if the proposed project is allowed. The increased traffic congestion, the added police at the mayor’s announced figure of a cost of $100,000 per additional police officer. The cost of new police facilities. The infrastructure cost to the tax payers, of which I am one. And if environmental issues in relation to the Fur Company property stops the project it will be even worse and more drawn out.
If you conclude that the proposed project should be approved you may leave those of us most directly affected with no choice but to challenge your conclusion. That would likely make financing through conventional sources impossible and delay the project at least a year or two.
As I have said I favor development in Flemington. Perhaps the proposed project will be rejected by you, leading to a reasonable compromise as to size and scope that will be feasible. A new and scaled down application could then be presented that will benefit all.