With the approval of 17 homes on the former Wemple property at Twin Oaks and Steele Gap roads, the members of the group opposing the plans are determined to keep on top of what happens over the coming months.
“At this time, I can say we will all still be attending all planning board meetings to see if there are any new developments,” said Patty Phillips, a member of the steering committee with Stop 18 Homes. “We are moving forward and all saying a lot of prayers that the DEP will come to our rescue.”
The application is for the building of 17 single-family homes on the woodlands formerly owned by the late John Wemple, and currently owned by Steven Lang.
Wemple, who willed the property to his nieces and nephews after his death in 2002, had maintained to his neighbors that he never wanted to see the land developed, and made that a part of his will, which was overturned by the Superior Court of New Jersey in 2005.
Stop 18 Homes—a group formed to oppose the application itself—had called in engineers and experts in endangered species to testify as to why the development should not move forward.
The subdivison application was approved in early December with the understanding that the board is requiring an environmental impact statement, consultation with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Dam Safety Bureau and many more conditions that must be fulfilled before any construction can begin.
And the next step, Phillips said, is the Jan. 15 planning board meeting when the board will memorialize the resolution to approve the application.
Phillips said she is unhappy by the fact that continued discussions about the application will now only be between Lang and the township, rather than the entire planning board.
“The applicant has to meet all of the township’s conditions, and that process is very rigorous,” she said. “But because of this vote, we’re blocked out of that, and we only get to see the final plans when they’re out there for the public.”
“Our only hope is that the DEP shuts it down,” she added.
The DEP will be required to approve plans for dams on the property, and whether they are dangerous to surrounding residents, as well as the possible historical nature of the property.
Laura Hierspiel, also a member of the steering committee for Stop 18 Homes, said she thinks the approval came too early in the process.
“In my opinion, the approval of the Lang application was premature in light of all the issues our experts raised,” she said. “It seems that Bridgewater needs some different people on the board who look at all the pertinent facts before drawing a conclusion.”
Hierspiel said she was also perturbed by comments made by board member Robert Albano that Wemple actually wanted the development, and would have taken more steps to preserve the land if he didn’t.
“I feel [those comments] were totally off base,” she said. “Mr. Wemple clearly made his feelings about his love for his land widely known. We believe that he was too trusting and received poor legal advice in how to protect his property. He thought that the power of his will would suffice.”
But Phillips said that she is overall disappointed by the decision to approve the application, as well as the fact that she believes some concerns from residents were not taken into account.
“John Thonet, who is our expert and has well over 30 years of experience, really felt he gave the board plenty of reasons to deny the application,” she said.
For Phillips, her first concern is the fact that she does not believe the opposition had ample time to prepare against the application. The applicant was first heard in April, and then there were two occasions when they were not ready to proceed and the board dismissed the application to another meeting.
“But on three different occasions, we had very good reasons why we needed to prolong our [opposition] and we were denied every time,” she said.
And then, Phillips said, a meeting was canceled on Oct. 29 because of Superstorm Sandy, and suddenly the board decided to have a meeting in November that had previously been rejected because of elections.
“There was no notification, and they expected people to go to town hall and look at a piece of paper on the window,” she said. “It was during recovery of Sandy, when many of our neighbors had no power and no phone, and I thought that was ridiculous.”
In addition, Phillips said, she believes members of the planning board declined to listen to their own experts.
“[Township Engineer Robert] Bogart, at the end of his report, recommended that the board not vote at all,” she said. “And Chris Poulsen, head of the environmental section of Bridgewater, recommended a full environmental impact study.”
Opposers to the application have said that full study has not been done, and would yield far different results to what has already been presented by the applicant.
In addition, Phillips said, the experts hired by Stop 18 Homes never received copies of reports to prepare for individual meetings.
“In this age of communication with email and computers and faxes, there is absolutely no reason why our engineer and attorney did not receive all of the reports, there is no excuse,” she said. “And then the board expected to give our environmentalist one day to review and come back.”
“When the board members said they gave both sides ample time, they didn’t,” she added. “They gave every opportunity to the applicant but not to us. We were rushed and things were not available to us.”
Mainly, Phillips said, she is discouraged that the approval came without all of the studies having been done.
“They gave preliminary approval, but the public is kept from the studies,” she said. “The applicant and engineer can go behind closed doors and figure them out.”
“We are not part of that process, we’ll get the final plan and we don’t even get a say in it,” she added.
Phillips said the group is not necessarily opposed to building in the area of the property, and she understands that Lang owns it and may want to make money from it. Instead, she said, one alternative could be to build houses along Twin Oaks and Foothill roads, as well as on Steele Gap Road, without having to build new roads and dams.
“And they can leave the center with wildlife,” she said. “And he’ll make money because he won’t have to put in sidewalks, curbs and roads, but can still put up six or seven houses.”
Phillips said she doesn’t know exactly what will happen next, but that the group will be monitoring where this project goes from here.
“To say I know where we’re going as I group, I don’t know and I don’t have a plan in place,” she said. “We will be meeting in early January to discuss and see what our options are.”
“We are not going to fade into the woodwork, we will keep an eye on what’s going on,” she added. “This is a long process to get approvals, and we want to make sure it is done in the right way.”