BRIDGEWATER, NJ - For years, residents who were part of a group known as “Stop 18 Homes” have been fighting to prevent the development of the Wemple property at Foothill Road and Twin Oaks Road – and now they are investigating new options.
In 2012, the Bridgewater planning board approved an application for 17 single family homes on the former 35-acre Wemple property.
The property was formerly owned by the late John Wemple, who willed the property to his nieces and nephews after his death in 2002, 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.
Bridgewater resident Bob Vaucher, who considered Wemple one of his best friends, said the property had been in Wemple’s family for many years, and he did not want it developed.
“We had many kitchen conferences about how he could save the property,” Vaucher said. “He created his will and stipulated in it that it not be developed.”
The property was deeded to Wemple’s 11 nieces and nephews because he did not have any children of his own.
“When they went to court to adjudicate his will after he died, they got somebody to testify that John was incompetent and didn’t know what he was doing,” Vaucher said. “They nullified the will.”
Vaucher said that that was how the family was able to sell the property to Stephen Lang, who brought the application for the single family houses to the township.
But now, Vaucher said, Lang is ready to sell the property and not build the homes.
“He was selling to a developer who was going to build the houses,” Vaucher said. “He is not a home builder himself, and he bought the land as an entrepreneur to make some money on it. He bought it from the estate.”
The members of Stop 18 Homes are hoping the township will consider buying the property as open space so that it can never be developed, like Wemple wanted, Vaucher said.
Vaucher said he has met with Bridgewater Mayor Dan Hayes to discuss a potential purchase of the property, but has been unsuccessful.
“The town has not indicated they are willing to buy the property,” Vaucher said. “They say this is not a strategic piece of property, whatever that means.”
“We are trying to get enthusiasm in the town to put pressure on the powers that be to consider buying it,” he added. “We’ve got the owner, and he’s in negotiating mode now. He has agreed to sell it to the town if they can agree on a price.”
Vaucher acknowledged that there would be a cost on the property if it were purchased as open space because of maintenance.
“But there isn’t a single neighbor that doesn’t think this is a good thing, rather than having additional homes built on it,” he said.
Hayes said the township has looked at the Wemple property from time to time, including before it originally came before the planning board for development, but had chosen not to pursue a purchase for open space.
“It did not meet all of our strategic objectives as compared to other priorities we have for our limited funds,” he said. “We look at long term use, and how much benefit there will be for residents versus other opportunities and other opportunities we believe will come up in the future.”
“The property does not meet the threshold for the price being asked for us to consider it,” he added.
Hayes said it was not the township that wanted the property developed, it was originally being developed because the owner of the property had sought approval himself.
But, Hayes said, the township is dealing with limited funds.
“The township is committed to open space purchases and having open space in the towship, we just have limited funds,” he said. “We have a lot of space and a lot of parks, and not every parcel can be purchased by the town. That’s an unfortunate reality.”
Vaucher said the property has a lot of history, dating back to the Revolutionary War, when part of the Middlebrook Encampment was stationed there.
“Historical people have found that George Washington issued an order stating that a certain number of the Middlebrook Encampment should be moved west to the other side of Chimney Rock, and if you moved to the other side, the only level property is the Wemple property,” he said. “We found canon balls on it.”
Vaucher said it was also the site of the first Adamsville school, and the Adamsville post office.
“There is a spring on it, and the first water company of Somerville was the Somerville Water Company, and they piped water from the spring,” he said.
Vaucher said girl and boy scouts used to hike on the property, and environmental groups would spend time there near the head of the Cuckolds Brook, which goes down to the Raritan River.
“We tried to get the state to make a rule that it was a tributary to the Raritan River, but they declined to do so,” he said. “We had hoped that that would give us some historic value.”
Most importantly, Vaucher said, all the neighbors near the property want it saved.
“One thing we hope to do is get the word out to the rest of the township because there are other people who would support us, and that might get the mayor to endorse the idea,” Vaucher said.
Vaucher said he has received more than 100 calls about the property, and he wrote a letter to Gov. Chris Christie, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and President-Elect Donald Trump, which was published in various news organizations.
In the letter, Vaucher detailed his service in the United States Air Force from 1939 to 1946, serving in World War II from 1941 to 1946 and flying 117 combat missions. He explained how he led the show of force of 525 B-29s flying over the battleship USS Missouri during the formal surrender ceremonies in Tokyo Bay in 1945.
During his time in the Air Force, Vaucher earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses and six Air Medals, and is in the NJ Aviation Hall of Fame with a nomination to the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
But for Vaucher, who is turning 98 years old, there is one more thing he would like to accomplish after a lifetime of service to others.
“In my letter, I said this is the one last thing I hope to do for the township,” he said, of preserving the land.
For Vaucher, this would cap a lifetime of working to better Bridgewater Township.
Vaucher was a leader in creating the Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School District, because the town wanted a high school, but the state said no unless they could make a regional district.
“Somerville laughed at us, and Bound Brook smiled and said no,” he said. “Raritan didn’t have a high school and they were sending kids to Somerville, so we got them to join us. And that’s why it’s the regional district, we had a big confab about which name would be first and Bridgewater won because it is bigger and was putting more work into the district.”
Vaucher also fought to have the high school built on the current property on Garretson Road, when the town wanted to sell the land to a developer.
Also with schools, Vaucher was instrumental in the creation of the Raritan Valley Community College, in Branchburg, as co-chair of the committee trying to decide if the county should have a college.
“The committee was split up very strongly, and one group didn’t want the county to get mixed up in any college, and one-third wanted to have a college and vocational part all mixed together,” he said. “One-third wanted to have it as it now exists, a county college and a vocational school separate.”
Vaucher, who wanted the two split, said they eventually sent three different reports to the freeholders, and a resolution was adopted based on the findings of his group to have the two separate schools.
Vaucher also led the campaign to change the Bridgewater town government from a committee form to the mayor-council format that is used now, as well as to create a police department in the township, which turned 50 years old in 2015.
“I’ve been very involved in many things,” he said. “I would love to be able to say in my 99 years that we finally saved the Wemple property.”
“It’s an emotional thing, and I would like very much for it to happen,” he added.
Anyone who would like to read Vaucher’s full letter or sign a petition in support of making the property open space, can visit this link: goo.gl/kCZLe2.