Borough Hall Special Workshop Meeting Shows Hightstown Still Divided
Hightstown mayor, council members, borough employees, and members of the public made their cases for or against rebuilding Borough Hall in its existing location
For many, the Hightstown Borough Hall has been a point of contention for more than a year now, and Wednesday night’s special workshop meeting showcased the various viewpoints and forces at work in the borough.
Councilman Robert Thibault illustrated with a PowerPoint presentation the flooding that occurred due to Hurricane Irene last year, as well as the many options council considered for the location of the new Borough Hall building. He highlighted that the council has done a thorough job in researching the borough’s options.
“Council did a great job of due diligence,” Thibault said. “We worked very hard, we fought for information, and I think we uncovered it.”
According to Thibault’s presentation, the administrative building took on between 3 and 4 inches of water, while the police department took on between 28 and 30 inches of water, and the public works garage saw 30 inches of water.
Two studies were completed to assess the cost to remediate and restore Borough Hall or demolish Borough Hall and rebuild it. In scenario one, the borough would keep the front of the building, which housed the administrative offices, and demolish the back of the building. This would cost just under $1 million.
Scenario two would include remediating, repairing, and upgrading the front portion of the building and the police station, while demolishing the public works garage, which would cost up to $1.9 million.
The currently proposed plan to demolish the entire building and rebuild Borough Hall up to code would cost up to $3.7 million. This would include raising the back of the building three feet and raising the front of the building one foot.
The borough council also considered off-site options, including on the Lucas Property and Bank Street Lot.
The Lucas property is 7 3/4 acres. It was purchased in 2004 for $1.5 million and has since been assessed at $2 million. It pays property taxes at almost $65,000.
For the borough to purchase the property, it would have to shell out around $1.7 million. On top of that, Borough Hall demolition would cost around $260,000. Thibault also factored in a 10-year lost tax revenue of between $325,000 and $650,000.
“It is a tax paying property–one of the largest in the borough–and we would lose that if we purchased that property,” Thibault said.
Renovations would cost about $2.4 million, bringing the total cost of the project up to $5 million.
Thibault also discussed the Bank Street Lot, which he said he and Councilman Larry Quattrone had proposed for use previously. Comprised of four lots spanning about half an acre, the property is above the flood plain and is part of the Rug Mill. The property is assessed at about $149,000 and pays approximately $1,312 in taxes.
Thibault suggested acquiring the lots for the Borough Hall, which he said would address the issue of the building being located in a flood zone. He said this would also give the mill property Main Street frontage.
Based on a needs assessment conducted by Borough Architect Rick Perez in August, the ne Borough Hall should be, at minimum, 14,000 sq. ft., although the optimal building size would be 16,000 sq. ft.
“I think Rob’s presentation shows how much we have researched this, how we have discussed this and given it a lot of serious thought, and looking at different options,” Councilwoman Lynne Woods said.
According to Mayor Steve Kirson, if the borough were to consider any other option than what is currently in the resolution, the borough would have to renegotiate with Lexington Insurance Co.
“I would think that if moving the building takes it out of a high risk area and puts it in a lower area that the insurance company would approve of that,” Woods said.
Kirson said, and Borough Administrator Mike Theokas later confirmed, if the borough wanted to move elsewhere, they would have to agree to a settlement with the insurance company.
“I think there’s an opportunity, or safe haven, going outside downtown, and I think that will allow us, if we’re not here, to revitalize our downtown,” Kirson said.
Kirson said, considering the sale of the current Borough Hall property, the cost to the borough of purchasing the Lucas property would likely go down from $1.7 million to somewhere close to $500,000.
“So maybe if we build it, it wouldn’t cost more than $2.5 million,” Kirson said.
He said of the taxes the borough would lose from the sale, the borough would only have to make up about $23,000. He said that adds up to an additional $12 to $13 in taxes a year, which he compared to six cups of coffee.
“I don’t get it myself–I think we’re giving up an opportunity,” Kirson said. “We’re staying in a flood zone, we are giving up this opportunity to have one of the prime locations in the borough filled with a borough hall–I see no value to that personally.”
Woods reiterated several times that the point of the meeting was to discuss the next step after passing the resolution.
“We can go around in circles. We can get in–and I don’t want to use an inappropriate word–a pissing contest, or we can all start working together,” Woods said.
“That horse left the barn with the resolution that we passed,” Thibault said.
Thibault disagreed with Kirson’s assessment of how much taxpayers would have to pay to make up for the tax loss from the Lucas property purchase.
He asked, if it’s only$23,000, could the borough cut taxes this year.
“They don’t think that way–nobody thinks that way,” Thibault said.
He said $23,000 adds up a great deal for many Hightstown residents. $27 might not be a lot of money to the Mayor, Thibault argued, but for some residents, it means the difference between eating hamburger and cat food.
At that point, Kirson corrected Thibault, stating it would add up to $12 a year. A very brief discussion broke out, and Thibault reprimanded Kirson for interrupting him.
Kirson then accused Thibault of spinning numbers and left the special meeting. Quatronne then took over the meeting.
Thibault continued the discussion, saying the council decided again the Lucas property because it was not a good deal for tax payers. In addition, the property is polluted, he said.
After council’s discussion, Quattrone proposed that the planning board present their findings. The council voted down Quattrone’s motion to allow the planning board to speak formally at the meeting, although Planning Board Chairman Steve Misiura spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting.
In the Hightstown Planning Board’s memo to the Mayor and Borough Council Members, the board stated it is not wise, nor is it in the best interests of the Borough, to build within the limits of a flood zone.
“Regardless of the eventual map determination regarding the flood limit locations, the Borough Hall property clearly has the propensity to flood, and has flooded on numerous occasions over the past 100 years,” the memo reads.
Borough Engineer Carmela Roberts said stormwater runoff into the Peddie Lake may also increase due to the Turnpike widening, which the planning board believes could increase the frequency and magnitude of future flooding.
Misiura said he is particularly concerned that global warming will increase the severity of future storms, which could greatly impact the definition of a 100-year and 500-year flood zone.
According to a Feb. 13 article in MIT news, Hurricane Irene was dubbed a “100-year event,” or by current definition, a storm that only comes around once in a century.
However, MIT and Princeton University researchers have found that with climate change, 100-year storms could make landfall every three to 20 years, and 500-year floods could occur once every 25 to 240 years.
After receiving the planning board’s decision, the council may reconsider its position on the location of the Borough Hall, or it may continue with the project. If the latter is the case, the council would have to articulate in a resolution the reasons for proceeding in spite of the planning board’s contrary recommendations.
Several people commented at the meeting that the Borough Hall is the command center during an emergency event. Easy access may not be guaranteed to the building if it is built within a flood zone, even if it is raised above flood levels. Therefore, the planning board believes it may be a better option to avoid building in a floodplain altogether.
The same goes for emergency services Quattrone said.
“The people you use the most you’re going to use the least, because you’re tied up in your own problems,” he said.
The fire and police departments require access to equipment so they can respond to an emergency event efficiently.
Quattrone said the police department’s backup equipment was in the firehouse when Hurrican Irene hit. Police were forced to use limited equipment, and the borough was lucky there were no serious injuries, he said.
“I do not want–and I suggest this to the council and the public–I do not want emergency equipment in a flood zone,” he said.
Resident JP Gibbons said he is less concerned about building a Borough Hall that will last 500 years.
“We build a community as a community–we don’t build it as a bunker to survive the Armageddon,” he said.
Resident Scott Caster suggested the council “get creative” and “think outside the box” in terms of finding a solution.
“This is Hightstown–we’re different from everybody else,” he said.