For a group of more than 60 people in the vicinity of Steele Gap Road, Twin Oaks Road and Berrywood Lane, they are facing the possibility of losing 36 acres of woodlands to single family homes—and at the center of that concern is confusion over a disregarded request in a will.
The property formerly belonging to is currently before the planning board as now owner Steve Lang is looking to build 18 homes on that land. One meeting concerning the application was held in May, and the second is scheduled for Monday at 7 p.m. at the municipal courtroom.
But in a will left by Wemple before he died in 2002, he said his entire property on Foothill Road should be deed restricted.
“I direct that my executor condition the conveyance and disposition of such property by imposing a deed restriction that such property shall never be developed, sub-divided or utilized for other than a one single family residential dwelling, depending on the stipulations and rulings as to limitations by the Township of Bridgewater,” the will says.
And for the members of Stop 18 Homes—a group that has come together to speak out against the application—they don’t understand how these wishes can be disregarded.
“My parents were friends of John’s, and we knew he wanted to preserve the land,” said Laura Hierspiel, of Steele Gap Road, and a member of the steering committee for Stop 18 Homes. “There is discredit of him with having Alzheimer’s, but his wishes were always clear. He made sure his neighbors knew it.”
Since the plans for 18 homes on the property were released, the members of the group have made it a point to research the application, its terms and information about the property itself. And aside from the technical concerns of the application, the first reaction to it was shock.
“Our mission is making sure that number one, this should not be about money,” said steering committee member, and Twin Oaks Road resident, Sandy Ruda. “We should make sure the property is untouched.”
After Wemple died, his property was willed to his 11 nieces and nephews, and residents in the surrounding area assumed the property would remain undeveloped, as he had decreed.
The first shock came when they found out the nieces and nephews had sold the property itself.
“My biggest amazement is that we knew he had no kids, and his nieces and nephews wanted money,” said Berrywood Lane resident, and steering committee member, Patty Phillips. “The purchase of the property was for $975,000. The neighborhood didn’t even know about the sale.”
With a total of 64 people in the group, they are all doing research to find out how the changes to the will came to be.
In a Superior Court of New Jersey civil action order, dated Aug. 4, 2005, it was decreed that the deed restriction laid out for the property in Wemple’s will has become null and void, and the property can be sold without restriction.
This paved the way for the sale to Lang in 2011, and, now, the allowed application.
“It is the betrayal of the will that touches a nerve,” Hierspiel said. “Can it really be overturned?”
“I think that’s why we are so concerned,” she added. “All we ever heard John say was that we had nothing to worry about.”
But for the members of Stop 18 Homes, they know they cannot just rely on their emotions about the application to hopefully convince the planning board to reject it. Instead, they have been gathering information about the property itself, and the possible dangers of building on that land, and cutting down 36 acres of trees to build homes.
Most importantly for many are the concerns about the animals, some possibly endangered, that are living in those 36 acres of woods.
“It will be a destruction of their habitat,” Hierspiel said of the turtles, woodpeckers, salamanders, deer, fox, possums, raccoons, turkeys and birds living on those grounds. “It seems as though the neighborhood needs to be taken into account."
Plus, members of the organization are concerned about flooding from the construction of 18 homes, and roads that will extend Berrywood Lane and create additional residential properties.
“There hasn’t been a study about flooding since 1991,” Hierspiel said. “Since then, other developments have been constructed, and there is more water rushing down the mountain. We keep having to patch roads.”
Ruda said she is concerned about runoff, particularly living directly across from some of the proposed houses, and the impact floodwaters could have not only on those homes already there, but on the on Merriwood Drive that often feels the impacts of flooding too.
“The mountain crests, and at Mountaintop Road, driveways wash out,” she said.
Hierspiel said she is also looking for additional information about the wetlands on the property. She said a study was randomly done on the Wemple property more than a year ago, which she assumes is related to this application.
“I know the development is avoiding one section of land where they are conforming to wetlands, but there are more than that,” Ruda said.
Also at issue for the members of the organization are a natural spring and dump located on the property, with 50-foot buffers required by law around both.
Hierspiel said there is the possibility that the dump on the property has been contaminated by pesticides and other chemicals.
"We don't want that overlooked in an environmental study," she said.
The group has dealt with its own fair share of controversy since the residents first received information about the application in April. Just after, Phillips said, they gave signs to residents to put up on their properties objecting to the application.
And then the signs disappeared.
“A person went and removed all the signs,” she said. “One resident was home and asked him why, and he said he was taking them to put new dates because the [planning board] meeting was canceled.”
“That was not true, and people made police reports about it,” she added.
The same day that the signs were removed, Phillips said, they were later found all dumped on one property, but police said they could not prosecute.
“It was suspicious,” Ruda said. “We are all in the neighborhood many years, and we have a right to be concerned and go to a meeting to learn what is happening.”
The , and the planning board heard from civil engineer James Mantz, who said that 14 of the 36 acres cannot be developed because of wetlands and because some of the property is preserved by the national Nature Conservancy. Discussion at that meeting centered on water run-off, drainage, the spring on the property and the preservation of land for the animals living there.
That meeting has been continued, for more testimony and resident questions, to Monday.
And the members of Stop 18 Homes have a few other ideas moving forward, and are continuing to gather information about the application and the property itself.
One of those ideas is to go before the township council at some point and discuss the value of keeping that land as open space.
Hierspiel said the township had actually made a bid to buy the land for open space many years ago for $100,000, but the sale never went through.
“We know the township wanted the property once for green acres, and we are looking into that,” she said.
For now, the members have had periodic meetings to discuss the application, and are trying to get the word out, distributing the signs and more than 200 fliers about the plans.
“It is not just perimeter people coming out for this,” Phillips said, who lives on the corner of Berrywood Lane where the road will be extended into one of the proposed cul de sacs on the property. “We are pulling in supporters from adjacent roads.”
“This issue is uniting the community,” Hierspiel added.
And although they are hoping not to just play on the emotional aspect of the application and the fact that it does go against the last wishes of the former owner, the members of Stop 18 Homes do recognize the impact of that kind of testimony.
“We are poking holes in the application,” Hierspiel said. “But the betrayal is what gets to me. I didn’t know you could overturn a will. If these were John’s children, it might have been different.”