Vernon nixes deal with owner of former Playboy Club; mayor hopes accord can still be reached

Tuesday evening, Mayor Howard Burrell made his appeal to the Vernon Township Council for a deal with the potential to be a promising revenue generator for Vernon. The council voted it down 3 - 2.

A settlement to facilitate the redevelopment of the boarded up former Playboy Club, now known as Legends, was rejected by the Township Council on a 3-2 vote after several members objected to terms they said were too lenient to the current owner.

The proposed agreement would have given Hillie Meyers, a Florida-based timeshare executive whose Metairie Corp. acquired the facility in 1998, until the end of June 2021 to pay $388,000 in overdue 2020 taxes following his payment of $472,000 in overdue 2019 taxes earlier this month.

Vernon, in turn, would have dropped its opposition to a one-year renewal of the facility's liquor license as well as a lawsuit seeking $60,000 in building and fire safety violations in hopes of making it easier for the owner to entice an investor. If no investor came forward by June, the agreement would have required that an auctioneer solicit bids, though the owner still could have turned down any final offer.

Earlier:  Deal may resurrect former Playboy Club into revenue generator

Mayor Howard Burrell, in urging the council to approve the settlement, said the township would retain the right to block the liquor license renewal a year from now if Meyers failed to keep to his commitments. He said the limited concessions were also far preferable to the township being left holding the property through eminent domain or unclaimed tax liens. 

"The town does not need the burden of owning this property," Burrell said. "This is not a perfect agreement, but it is a good written agreement and we should not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good."

But Councilwoman Jean Murphy, who was joined by John Auberger and Kelly Weller in voting against approval, said not getting all of last year's taxes paid by March 1 meant Vernon would again be forced to budget more money for uncollected taxes in the coming year's budget. Any concessions regarding the liquor license should also be contingent on Meyers remaining current on his 2021 taxes, she said.

Meyers closed the onetime luxury resort to all but a handful of low-income tenants over a decade ago, and Murphy suggested that public safety issues, including a 2008 murder, were reason enough for the township to be skeptical of making further concessions.

"This town and our police and zoning departments have been dealing with this garbage for years, day in and day out," she said.

Councilman Andrew Pitsker echoed Murphy's concerns but was the lone council member to join Council President Harry Shortway in voting to approve the settlement, which Pitsker likened to "kicking it down the road" for a year in the slim hope something good might come of it.

Shortway, in urging its approval, recalled the zoning crackdown he initiated as mayor three years ago to rid the facility of its remaining long-term tenants. Shortway said at the time that the move was necessary for health and safety reasons and to enforce a ban on long-term rentals enacted when the facility was converted to condominium and timeshare units in the 1990s.

"No one was harder on Metairie than myself," Shortway said. "But if we don't approve this, we're going to lose the additional revenue at a time when no one knows what COVID or our budget is going to look like. We have nothing to lose by approving this at this time."

The Great Gorge Playboy Club, when it opened in 1971, was viewed as an economic game-changer for the region just when Vernon's ski resorts were starting to put the area on the map as a mecca for recreation and tourism. The demise and sale of the Playboy Club to a hotel operator a decade later was the first of several such moves that saw it change hands and deteriorate to what today is a relic of its former glitzy self. 

This and the 1996 closure of Action Park — followed by the legal and financial issues accompanying Mountain Creek's passage from the late Gene Mulvihill to a succession of other owners over the years, culminating in the resort's May 2017 bankruptcy filing — appear to have made township officials more wary than ever of getting roped into further entanglements with developers.

The township last year concluded a settlement of Mountain Creek's bankruptcy lawsuit, which could have left Vernon with $28 million in costs for a sewer system intended to help the resort expand under a 2005 agreement. Mayor Howard Burrell has since touted what he said is a continuation of the excellent relationship with the resort's new ownership that began when Shortway was still mayor.

Shortway urged his council colleagues to consider these changes as part of a bigger picture, which he said is about encouraging Mountain Creek, Minerals, Legends and Crystal Springs resorts to work with the township and each other to promote further development. Doing so would also help stabilize Vernon's sewer rates, he said.

Auberger, however, bristled at the suggestion that the proposed settlement was the only way forward.

"There is nothing stopping the current owner from seeking any bank to help him redevelop it or seeking to sell the property," Auberger said. "I want things to move forward, but I'm not going to keep turning back like we've had with past agreements of past councils where everything was given to private companies on the burden of the taxpayers."

Byram resident Harvey Roseff, one of three members of the public to address the council regarding the proposed settlement, said it was unseemly for Vernon to forgive $60,000 in fire and safety code violations by the owner of Legends after those same violations were used as justification to "muscle out" several dozen low-income families three years ago.

Burrell, however, said the amount of the fines would likely be exceeded by the cost of litigation with no guarantee the township would prevail.

Vernon resident Thomas McClachrie said the proposed settlement was long on promises but left too many questions unanswered. He said a person who bought a timeshare at Legends years ago told him recently that "we were promised this was going to be the jewel of the Northeast, and it's the pits."

A Hampton resident planning to move to Vernon, however, said the proposed settlement would be a positive step and that resurrecting the former Playboy Club property would be a boon not just for Vernon but all of Sussex County.

Burrell said after the vote that he informed Meyers late Tuesday of the council's decision and was hopeful an agreement could still be reached.

"I had told Hillie (Meyers) I wouldn't agree to anything if I didn't think I could get council buy-in so my credibility with him may have taken a hit, but I'm hopeful he'll call me again and ask me what they objected to," Burrell said. "If he walks away from it (the property) entirely, then it's ours and I don't want that."