BRIDGEWATER, NJ - The saga of the venerable Wemple property in Bridgewater Township is on its way to a satisfying conclusion for the residents who have fought for it for years.
The Bridgewater Township Council voted unanimously Monday to allow for the purchase of about 31 acres of land – known as 440 Foothill Road, Twin Oaks Road, and 501 Steele Gap Road – from Bridgewater Estates, LLC, for the price of $1,925,000.
“It has historical value, and will maintain open space for generations to come,” said council president Christine Henderson Rose, just before the four present council members voted.
The purchase will be primarily facilitated by $1,150,000 from the township’s Open Space Trust Fund. A total of $250,000 will be funded by Somerset County, along with $250,000 from the Cross Roads of the American Revolution and $175,000 by the D&R Greenway Land Trust.
There will also be a charitable donation of about 1.319 acres, and the township taking title, subject to roll back taxes in the approximate amount of $100,000.
Residents worked for several weeks to raise money in June, raising $100,000 in a three-week period, and a little over $2 million in a short period of time from Bridgewater homeowners and the non-profit organizations.
The only individual, other than the council, to speak during the public hearing on the ordinance was World War II veteran, and centenarian, Bob Vaucher, who has spearheaded the efforts to save the Wemple property for the last six years.
Vaucher began his remarks by holding up a medallion from 1895, which he quipped was older than himself. He said out of his 100 years, he had spent 68 of them as a citizen of Bridgewater, and in almost every one of those years had appeared before some part of the municipal governing body.
“This is just a continuation of what I’ve been doing,” he said.
Vaucher spoke of the patience and perseverance that had been required by many individuals over the years to see their initiatives finally bear fruit, with the Wemple property taking up the most time.
“John (Wemple) was adamant about keeping the property in one piece,” he said.
Vaucher said he had helped Wemple with his will some 25 years ago, prior to Wemple’s death in 2001. Vaucher said the property had then been sold, which catalyzed the patience and perseverance that he had previously spoken about, to the tune of more than 1,500 individuals who signed a petition to preserve the property for open space.
“The current owner, Steven Lang, waited patiently for a preservation resolution,” said Vaucher, who also thanked his fellow citizens for spending their discretionary income to save the property, along with the county, the Cross Roads group and the D&R trust.
Vaucher called them allies, and referred to them as “visionary supporters.”
For years, residents part of a group called "Stop 18 Homes" had been fighting to prevent the development of the property, but, in 2012, the Bridgewater planning board approved an application for single family homes on it.
The property was formerly owned by the late Wemple, who willed the property to his nieces and nephews after his death, and maintained to his neighbors that he never wanted to see the land developed. Wemple made that stipulation part of his will, but it was overturned by the Superior Court of New Jersey in 2005.
The family then sold the property to Lang, who brought the application to the planning board regarding the building of homes.
In recent months, Lang had promised that if the residents could raise $1.9 million, he would turn the land over to the township for open space, instead of being developed.
“I also want to thank the council,” added Vaucher, who was presented a silver certificate that evening by the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution.
Vaucher said Wemple’s wishes to preserve the historical property would be fulfilled, and Rose thanked Vaucher for his service to the township before he stepped down from the podium.
Prior to the council’s vote on the ordinance, councilman Howard Norgalis remarked that the town could not close on the property until the funds were actually in hand.
“In passing this, we won’t own the property tomorrow,” he said.
Council vice president Matthew Moench labeled the endeavor a true public/private partnership, and said that such participation made the property special. He said it was “a no-brainer” to preserve the property, due to its size and location.
“I hope I’m still here (in Bridgewater) at Bob’s age,” Moench added. “Thank you, all of you.”
Councilman Allen Kurdyla said that he and the council had been involved with the project with the open space community for years, and appreciated the matter coming to a positive end. He said he also appreciated all the work that had been done to make it happen on both the public and private sides.
“I think it will be a great addition to Bridgewater,” he said.
Rose spoke on behalf of councilman Filipe Pedroso, who was traveling at the time of the council meeting, and said that he “strongly supported the ordinance” and called it an “outstanding deal” for Bridgewater and its residents, at roughly $62,000 per acre. Pedroso had also said that the deal got better, in that it reduced the township’s obligations by incorporating a quarter of a million dollars of county money, which in turn lowered the cost per acre to about $40,000.
“It’s a very wise decision,” he said, “and I support the acquisition of this property.”