FLEMINGTON, NJ - The Flemington Planning Board unanimously deemed new redevelopment plans for the Union Hotel to be “substantially consistent” with the master plan, paving the way for the council to give a final nod to the revised plans at a special meeting next Tuesday night.

Planning board members Todd Cook, Marc Hain, Karen Giffen and Mayor Betsy Driver recused themselves from the vote, citing conflicts of interest and pending legal litigation.

After years of negotiation, Courthouse Square developer Jack Cust and the borough came to terms with a scaled-down version of plans that were approved in 2017, in hopes of addressing residents’ concerns that the proposal was too large for the space and wasn’t in keeping with the two-story Victorian homes along Spring Street and Bloomsbury Avenue, which border the project.

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The revised plan eliminates proposed medical and educational space, reduces the number of apartments from 222 to 206; reduces retail square footage from 32,250 square feet to 22,000 square feet; and reduces the maximum building height from 87 feet to just over 63 feet, while retaining the police building, 78 Main Street where the Potting Shed is located and the former Hunterdon County Bank building.  It calls for renovating the Union Hotel, which will hold 100 hotel rooms, a restaurant and pub.

Shortly after the original plan was approved in 2017, Friends of Historic Flemington, a group of residents opposed to the project, filed several lawsuits to prevent it from moving forward. All but one of those suits have been resolved, said Gary Schotland, a Friends of Historic Flemington trustee.

The remaining suit claimed that several planning board members did not recuse themselves from voting on the plan when they should have.

After the suit was filed, the planning board amended the way it conducts its hearing process. On Tuesday, each board member was asked by the board attorney if they had any conflicts that would preclude them from voting on the plan, leading to the four recusals.

While the board agreed the new plan substantially meets the borough’s master plan standards, it also made note of some gray areas in the plan, such as the reduced building heights, which are still taller than the four stories the master plan recommends. The new plan calls for as many as five stories in some areas.

Planner Elizabeth McManus pointed out that the master plan allows for flexibility if the redevelopment furthers other borough goals, such as providing affordable housing, event space and preservation of historic structures, which is the case with Courthouse Square.

“What the board needs to weigh is the preservation of historic resources in this area and whether it’s adequate to meet the borough’s goals,” she said.

Planning board members also forwarded recommendations to council about including bike paths, parking and racks and other sustainable and environmental elements that would enhance the borough, and a visual landmark if plans for a parking lot at the Flemington Furs building site change and something is erected there instead. The plan allows for electric car charging stations, a solar canopy and outdoor event space, but none of that is required by the builder, said McManus.

Resident Lois Stewart took issue with the additional building height, urging the board to make concessions.

“The height is just too much, it takes away from the integrity of our historic buildings,” she said. “Look at Spring Street. That’s two-story residential homes with lawns.”

Resident Charles Pettebone supported the revised plan.

“We can get beautiful and not overwhelm the integrity,” he said. “It's going to be great.”

Members of Flemington Community Partnership, which represents the borough's business improvement district, also supported the revisions.

"It will be wonderful to have life and new purpose and activity to the street," said Robin Lapidus, partnership executive director.  "The project has certainly been improved by everybody's contribution. It's time for growth."

"I think we've come to a place where we can all appreciate and get behind it," added Tim Bebout, owner of Main Street Manor and partnership member.