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Planning board okays property investigations; Stockton Inn, school, park proposed for redevelopment

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The Stockton Borough Planning Board on Tuesday directed its consultant to take a first step in a redevelopment process that could radically change the face of the tiny riverside town.

It could turn the centuries-old Stockton Inn, Rodgers and Hart’s “small hotel with a wishing well,” into a huge entertainment conglomerate.

Joanna Slagle, the board’s professional planner, will prepare a preliminary investigation report (PIR) of three properties Avon Road Partners LP wants to buy and transform into what could be a tourist mecca.

In a recent letter to residents the New York-based organization promised to enhance the town and provided a video promising “a rebirth of Stockton.” Some residents viewed the video as a done deal when it  is merely the developer’s vision of the final outcome of the project. So far, the developer has asked borough council only to consider redevelopment as a planning tool for the site.

Avon Road Partners is intending to buy the fabled and historic Stockton Inn built in 1710, restore and expand it to include a 100-seat restaurant, build a connecting three-story hotel and a 1,000-seat tented amphitheater for the performing arts. 
In addition, a wellness center would be added later, according to the intended buyers, a family firm involved in gaming, technology, media and real estate projects. The partners are JB Berman and her brother, Alan Berman.

News of the concept and the spread of some misinformation has created a flurry of concern and suspicion among residents, and the planning board’s ZOOM meeting Tuesday night was a bit tense, with 88 residents signed up to address the board. By the meeting’s end, many had dropped out of the queue waiting to speak.

Board Chairman Stephen Giocondo made it clear at the beginning of the more than three-hour long meeting the planners had been ordered by council resolution to prepare a PIR to determine if the site meets eight criteria.

“This is a redevelopment process,” he said, “separate from a developer’s vision. Joanna will be evaluating the property itself to see whether it qualifies.”

When the report is completed, he noted, the board will not be making a recommendation but merely determining whether the properties meet the criteria or not.  The three parcels are the inn property, the Stockton School and the park.

Giocondo noted, “There is no specific application. The planning board has not had any meeting with Avon or associates.” Two members of the board, Tim Nemeth and Laura Lutton, temporarily recused themselves from the panel because they both live within 200 feet of one of the properties under consideration.

Several residents said they were concerned about openness and transparency and the right to speak before action is taken.

Resident Eileen Foley urged the board to “pause and hold a public meeting. This is the biggest thing that’s ever happened here. People deserve to have a chance to speak. There’s a level of interest never seen before.”

Trishka W. Cecil, the board’s attorney, provided some calming information as she assured the residents they would have a chance to speak at the proper procedural time. She described the PIR as “a fact-finding mission – do the properties qualify or don’t they.”

Resident Richard Burkholder noted the park land is in a flood area.  He also questioned “public drunkenness and the effect of having 1,000 people coming in on weekends.”

Resident Peter Folz asked where the funds are coming from and was told the PIR would be done at the expense of the planning board.

Ken DeBleu, a past vice-chair of the planners, said, “Get ready for the long haul,” based on his previous planning experience.

Elaine Johnson said, “The first time we heard about the Stockton Inn we weren’t allowed to comment until after the council voted. What is the hurry?  I think you should backtrack.”

Alix Bacon said she was concerned about environmental effects the project might have.

One person questioned, “How is it ethical to have council members on the planning commission?” Cecil told her according to law the state requires two elected officials to serve on the planning board.

The board voted to move ahead with the PIR and, when it is ready, to schedule a public hearing.


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