Hightstown’s Borough Hall could be reconstructed on the North Main Street municipal-owned property within three years, funded for the most part by the borough’s insurance company.
During the Hightstown Borough Council Meeting Tuesday, the council passed a resolution with a 5-1 vote stating they believe it is in the best interests of the borough to undertake a municipal capital project to re-use the property for some or all of the municipal operations of the borough.
Borough Hall has yet to reopen after Hurricane Irene hit last August, which forced administrative offices to relocate to the Public Works building on Bank Street and the Police Department to move to the Lucas Electric building on Mercer Street.
The resolution states that the council wishes to reuse the property in the same general area as where the former Borough Hall was located for the administrative offices and Police Department.
The resolution also allows for the possible inclusion of the Department of Public Works and the Municipal Court at that same location subject to further determinations made by the borough.
During the meeting, council members discussed much of the wording of the resolution. Upon approval, the resolution will be presented to the Hightstown Borough Planning Board.
The original wording stated that Hurricane Irene caused the former Borough Hall building, as well as all adjacent and accessory structures located at the property, to become uninhabitable. However, according Borough Engineer Carmela Roberts, the building is considered one structure. Council therefore agreed to strike mention of adjacent and accessory structures from the resolution.
Council also agreed to indicate the reason for their decision to stay at the North Main Street location was “for cost and other considerations.”
Additionally, rather than state their intentions to “restore” the property, council decided to indicate that they would be “reusing” the property.
“I think I have to say overall this resolution captures what we were talking about very well,” Councilwoman Gail Doran said.
Doran said the Planning Board has requested as much detail about the project as possible, and the council intends to provide information to the Planning Board during each stage of the decision process.
She said this would give the Planning Board the opportunity to reply to each stage in a timely manner, rather than be overwhelmed by an onslaught of ideas and details all at once.
“I think this resolution is a nice balance between a preliminary decision and the detail that they wanted,” Doran said.
The resolution dictates the Planning Board will have 45 days to review the plan and make recommendations in conjunction with the borough Master Plan.
According to Borough Attorney Frederick Raffetto, however, the Planning Board asked the council to consider providing them with additional time beyond 45 days to review the resolution.
He said the board is concerned that 45 days would only allow them to discuss the resolution during one meeting, and they have therefore requested a period of 60 to 90 days to review the resolution.
Doran objected to this request, stating the council will provide details to the Planning Board piece by piece and not in “one fell swoop.”
She said if the latter were the case, she could understand the board needing more time to review the materials before them, however, as they will be receiving details about the project in parts, they need to deal with that information in a timely fashion.
“They need to deal with it in the timeframe that we are dealing with it,” Doran said.
Councilman Robert Thibault said it is important to note the council does not plan on changing the use of the property, but simply plans to use the property for the same functions it served before Borough Hall was damaged during Hurricane Irene.
Hightstown Resident J.P. Gibbons said the council does not need the Planning Board’s approval to rebuild Borough Hall in its existing location.
“It’s a question of whether or not you are violating with your concept the Master Plan, and how could you violate the Master Plan when Borough Hall was at that location doing that function when the Master Plan was created?” Gibbons asked.
Soon after the council passed the resolution, with all but Councilman Larry Quattrone voting in the affirmative, Mayor Steven Kirson informed the council that he, along with council members Lynne Woods and Quattrone, Borough Administrator Mike Theokas, architect Rick Perez, and construction official George Chin, met with representative from Lexington Insurance Co. this week.
According to Kirson, the company estimates the cost of demolishing the existing Borough Hall structure and constructing a new one above the flood plain with minimum code upgrades would cost between $3 million and $3.7 million.
Kirson said the company representatives agreed it is within the borough’s policy that the insurance company would reimburse the borough for the project minus a $.5 million deductible.
According to Woods, the council will need to work with the insurance company every step of the way during construction. With each code upgrade the borough makes, the borough would be reimbursed by the insurance company upon their approval of the upgrades.
Kirson said any embellishments above minimum code would be on the borough’s dime.
The mayor said this is an improvement from when the storm first hit Hightstown in 2011, when the company reportedly said the borough would not receive compensation for the project.
He said over the past year the borough worked to establish that while its policy did not cover loss of property, the existing borough hall was so old and out of code in almost every aspect that it would have been deemed uninhabitable. Therefore, the policy would cover tearing down the hall and rebuilding up to current code standards.
The borough must submit a letter from Roberts stating the borough is in a flood zone to receive funds.
Kirson estimated it would take a year to break ground, since the borough would need a number of permits from the Department of Environmental Protection. The project could take three years overall to complete, he said.
Under the policy, Lexington is also responsible for providing temporary housing for borough administrators and police, Kirson said. The borough will compare costs for remaining in the public works building, renting office space in town, or renting office trailers.
Woods said the possibility exists for the insurance company to provide a lump sum up front, pending they agree with the borough’s demolition and construction estimates.
“What am I missing? Why weren’t people walking on air walking in here tonight?” Doran asked after hearing the update.
“I’m going from ‘zero dollars’ to ‘Merry Christmas, Happy New Year,’” Councilwoman Selena Bibens said.
Woods and Kirson noted upon inquiry from Councilwoman Susan Bluth that the insurance company would not confirm the meeting in writing, as the company reportedly said it is not standard practice to do so, and everything discussed during their meeting this week is outlined in the borough’s insurance policy.
While it appears the borough will be compensated for most of the project, the borough is still contesting its claim with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Maps created in 1977 put Borough Hall in a high-hazard flood zone. However, if the county retroactively accepts maps created by FEMA in 2008, that would remove the flood zone designation, as well as the $1 million insurance deductible the borough would have to pay to FEMA before it receives its payout.
While there is currently no timeline for an answer on the flood zone designation, the borough council had hoped to file a Letter of Map Amendment to speed up the process.
The borough would have had to submit mapping and survey information to FEMA to request that they issue a document that officially removes the structure from the Special Flood Hazard Area. The LOMA could have allowed the borough to receive new maps within three or four months.
Roberts, was charged by the council two weeks ago with surveying Borough Hall and determining if it fell within the 100-year floodplain area.
However, Roberts said her survey determined Borough Hall is in fact within a flood zone.
“It’s close, but not close enough,” she said.
According to Roberts, the amount of the building below the 100-year floodplain area ranges from one-tenth of an inch to 7 1/2 inches of the structure. She said about one-third of the building is in the flood zone.
“The differences were just far too great for you to be eligible for the LOMA application,” she said.