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Decision on Borough Hall Grounded in Reality

Hightstown's Borough Council made a reasoned, sound decision based on all of the data it could uncover and only after carefully considering what they believe was the best interests of residents.

You might not know it from some of the headlines in the local print newspapers, but on September 18, 2012, a united Hightstown Borough Council made a decision on the future of Borough Hall by passing Resolution 2012-229 with an overwhelming 5-1 vote.   It can hardly be said that Council “rushed” into a decision that was made after six months of fighting for information and reviewing possible options -- and more than a year after the Hurricane that damaged Borough Hall.

Council made a reasoned, sound decision based on all of the data it could uncover and only after carefully considering what they believe was the best interests of residents.  We looked at the largest properties in the Borough available at the time and, for a variety of reasons, were forced to reject them all.  One of the properties rejected after a thorough review was the Lucas property on Mercer Street.

Council discussed the rationale for its decision at many meetings, but it has become apparent both that many residents have not heard all the information Council considered and that some have willfully ignored or distorted that information.  Here is the information we uncovered and judged the Lucas property on.  Please note that I have linked to original source documents so they can be reviewed directly. 

There were three fundamental reasons that Council overwhelmingly rejected the Lucas property:

Costs are much higher – Based on reports from an architectural firm, buying and renovating the property would cost an estimated $4,465,150 - $4,570,020.  That cost is more than 20 percent higher than the cost for building a new Borough Hall on the existing site. 

It is both too large and too small – At 7.75 acres, the Lucas property is nearly seven times the size of the current Borough Hall lot.  The building totals 18,377 square feet, but 10,000 square feet of that space consists of garage and warehouse space.  So while the overall building is about 4,000 square feet larger than the Borough’s space requirements, the office space portion of it is at least 6,000 square feet smaller than the Borough needs.  Hence the costly renovations.

It is polluted with dangerous chemicals – The property is listed as a groundwater contamination area by the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection because the site is heavily tainted by hazardous and cancer-causing chemicals that include benzene, ethylbenzene and toluene in concentrations ranging from three to seven thousand times allowable levels.

Those in favor of moving Borough Hall to the Lucas property cited the following reasons.  Note that there are also a handful of other related and lesser reasons for moving to the Lucas property that are listed in a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis conducted by GHEWIP and available here.

It will make the rug mill “much more attractive” to developers The argument is that lack of access to Main Street has been a stumbling block to redevelopment of the mill property which has sat vacant since the 1980s.  This contention is supported by a report sponsored by the Greater Hightstown East Windsor Improvement Project (GHEWIP) released in April 2012.  The report also lists allowing higher density residential rental units and a tax abatement as two other “issues” that the Borough should consider for making the property more desirable. 

It will allow retail development on North Main Street – This is true insofar as any vacant property could allow retail development.  However, the GHEWIP report indicates that “There may be opportunities for retail (along Main Street) and small office uses, but these will likely require some level of subsidy provided by the residential component.“ 

It would place the Borough Hall site back on the tax rolls – This could also be true, but there is no answer to the questions about when or at what value.  Would it be five years?  Ten years? Or, as the GHEWIP report indicates would a developer be given a tax abatement?

The Lucas Property could be subdivided – It is acknowledged that the Borough does not require 7.75 acres and a portion of the property could be sold for development.  This is of, course, a possibility.  But the questions as to when and for how much remain unanswered.  The site’s chemical contamination would certainly be a major negative factor in a developer’s decision.

The current Borough Hall is in a flood zone – The Planning Board cited this issue as the primary reason for its vote “not to support the Borough Council’s resolution to keep Borough Hall in its current location.”  It is also something given significant consideration by Council before making its decision. 

There are two flood maps that fall into play here: the current FEMA flood map and a new proposed revised FEMA map.   

Under the old map, the rear part of Borough Hall fell into the 100 year flood zone and the front part of the building fell into “Zone B”, a lower risk area.  This was borne out by Hurricane Irene, with the rear part of Borough Hall being flooded by 30 inches or more of water while the front part saw only 3 or 4 inches of water.  The new map places the current footprint of Borough Hall completely in the lower risk 500 year flood area.  

Rather than just relying on maps, the Council reviewed engineering surveys of the property that show the area nearest North Main Street is considerably higher than the rear part closer to the Mill property.  If you were present during the height of Hurricane Irene flooding, you’ll remember that the front and north sides of the Borough Hall property and the Historic Society property next door were not flooded and remained fully accessible at all times.

What Council is now considering is how best to place Borough Hall on that highest part of the existing property and what additional mitigation steps might be needed not just to fully comply with State and Federal regulations and standards but our own flood damage prevention ordinance as well.  It should be noted that we have been told by the Mayor and Borough Administrator that we have assurances from the Borough’s insurance company that they will cover the entire cost of such mitigation.

As it has done throughout this process, Council is once again gathering all the facts and data possible in order to make the decision that is best for residents now and into the future.  Some might prefer that the decision on Borough Hall had been based on their self-described vision of “possibilities” and “opportunities” and “potential”.  But while it is easy to be swayed by such grand dreams, a true vision must be grounded in reality and based on measurable facts.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Rob Thibault November 06, 2012 at 09:06 PM
Please note that the link to the current FEMA flood map is broken. I've included a PDF of the map with the article. The full FEMA flood map is available at msc.fema.gov
JB November 07, 2012 at 07:57 PM
The Borough Council is missing the point about the FEMA flood maps. Even the new map to be adopted in 2013 does not take into account for the effect that global warming will have on the severity and frequency of storms that will hit our area in the future. One may disagree about the cause of global warming but I don't know how anyone can argue with the facts that the warmest months and years in our history have occurred since the year 2000. And that ocean temperatures are increasing and arctic ice is melting. All these factors mean that the "100-year" storm and its associated flood line will occur much more frequently than an average of once per hundred years. The State and Federal construction codes that tell us how to build to survive a "100-year storm" are inadequate. By re-building Borough Hall in this same location we are betting against Mother Nature. Furthermore, even if Borough Hall could be built to survive repeated "100-year storms", the access roads serving Borough Hall will be flooded leaving our police force unable to respond to storm emergencies. I don't believe Council is also planning to raise the elevation of North Main Street, Bank Street and the Borough Hall parking lot. I am disappointed that Council has not discussed other options for re-building Borough Hall with our insurance company. It seems Council has made their decision without fully developing any alternatives.
J November 07, 2012 at 09:59 PM
Excellent article, Rob. It is apparent that council did consider alternatives, but those alternatives were not very attractive. Every time I read an artcle on this subject, someone invariably raises the issue of "vision". I see the vision here with this decision- a vision of stable taxes and no additional debt. A vision of not trading a sure thing for a pie-in-the-sky "what if" scenario. It is appraent that the Lucas property is not a good site- it would remove an existing part of the tax base and it is contaminated. In addition, if the Rt 33 corridor study's vision is to expand bsuiness along Rt 33, how would placing a municipal building in the middle of that business track be beneficial? Wouldn't it be better to leave that property open to other development? If the exisiting site flood risk can be mitigated and a new building built with insurance funds, how can we not take advantage of that?
Marion G. November 11, 2012 at 09:22 PM
Rob - No matter which way one thinks about the placement of Borough Hall, this is another thorough, well-researched, easy to understand article from you. You are an asset to Hightstown.

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