HILLSBOROUGH: Residents ask to see full off-track wagering application

By Gene Robbins, Managing Editor
Hillsborough residents exuded frustration and powerlessness Wednesday night when making comments on a proposal that would place the state’s sixth off-track wagering facility at a former restaurant on Route 206 just south of Brown Avenue.
The N.J. Racing Commission held the required hearing. Darby Development, which would run the facility, showed data and photos of the restaurant and betting areas after it has made $3.6 million of renovations at the former Maestro’s restaurant the company bought in a bankruptcy sale.
The OTW would be called “Favorites at Hillsborough Township” and have separate restaurant and wagering areas. There would be simulcasts of standardbred and thoroughbred horse racing from around the country most days of the year.
Much of the info was similar to presentations by Darby in meetings in the township in March and April 2014. However, the full application won’t be made public until the commission makes its decision, leading to suspicion by the public.
Township resident Brian Tarantino said if the application was to be “hidden and secret,” then the public is in effect disenfranchised.
“What then is the purpose of this hearing?” he asked rhetorically, to audience applause. “How are we supposed to provide meaningful comments?”
“You either have something to hide or you have utter disdain for Hillsborough and our people,” he said.
He urged the commission to make public the application, with redactions of personal and sensitive business information, before the end of the comment period.
Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, who lives in Hillsborough, made the same request at the end of the hearing.
“We live in cynical times,” he said. “Don’t give people a reason to not trust the system.”
Darby’s attorney, James Aaron, said the applicant had offered to send documents to the municipality, but the township wanted to know what documents were redacted and why.
Mr. Aaron said the company realized it could never win and never satisfy requests for enough information.
There were questions whether the Hillsborough site would generate new business or simply siphon off players from the nearest OTW in Woodbridge 20 miles away.
If it was “inimical” to Woodbridge, by definition of the law the application would have to be denied, Mr. Tarantino said.
There were also questions about the tax-paying agreement with the township. The formal applicant, the N.J. Horsemen’s Association, and Hillsborough Township have signed an agreement for a payment in lieu of taxes that would pay Hillsborough about $30,000 a year, less than the $42,000 paid by the former restaurant.
Mr. Tarantino said the applicant could show good faith by paying more than the market rate. If not, it means other taxpayers are subsidizing an OTW that projects $20 million in business.
The public’s written comments will be taken by the Racing Commission until July 29 by surface mail, overnight mail, email or facsimile. The surface mail address is New Jersey Racing Commission, P.O. Box 088, Trenton, New Jersey 08625-0088; by overnight mail to the commission, 140 East Front Street – 8th Floor, Trenton, 08625-0088; by email to NJRCWebinfo@lps.state.nj.us; or by facsimile to (609) 599-1785.
Once the record is closed, the commission must make a determination no sooner than 30 days or no longer than 60 days. That would put a decision into September or October. The commission has a regular meeting scheduled for Sept. 16 at Monmouth Park, said Frank Zanzuccki, executive director of the commission.
The commission has three decisions to make, according to the legal notice. The body must determine if it will issue a license to the N.J. Sports and Exposition Authority, from where all licenses emanate. If the answer is yes, the commission will consider the transfer of the license to the N.J. Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, Inc. The association would then seek approval to lease the operation to Darby Development.
A 2011 state law allows off-track wagering operations in any commercial or industrially zoned site in the state, subject to the approval of the Racing Commission and the state Attorney General.
Mayor Doug Tomson called the lack of local control means “the process is fundamentally flawed in a home rule state.”
The state legislature acted to protect and encourage the horse industry in the state. Assemblyman Ciattarelli said more OTWs “may be what the racing industry needs, but it is not what Hillsborough desperately needs.” He called for a change in the law to put OTWs in densely populated areas with infrastructure to support them.
He said it was hard to believe the commission, with many members with past or present ties to the horse industry, was not “somewhat conflicted.”
“Why would anyone invest that amount of money ($3.6 million in renovations) if this is not a done deal?” he asked rhetorically.
Testimony showed the facility is planned to open daily at 11 a.m. and close at 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, midnight on Friday, 12:30 a.m. on Saturday and 10 p.m. on Sunday.
 An estimated 40 full- and part-time jobs for managers, clerks, guest services, secretarial and cleaning. There would be another 40 full- and part-time employees for the restaurant management, wait staff, cooks and kitchen workers.
There are an estimated 80 parking spaces in the lot. Darby would contract would a printing business across the street for 34 spaces for employees on weekends. On busiest racing days, it would use a valet service to park cars offsite.