Subdivision Approved for Hopewell Township Historic Lot

December HTZB 2019 (Photo by Maddi Ference)

The Hopewell Township Municipal Building was ‘Boehm’-ing with energy at the Zoning Board’s December 12 meeting.

Much of the meeting was spent discussing the application for a minor subdivision at 1266 River Road, otherwise known as the former home of Edward and Helen Boehm. Originally, the plan was for the owner to build a multi-story apartment building. Then, in 2011 the owner applied to place two group homes on the property. Now, the owner applied for a subdivision that would permit two residential dwelling units with more residents and more square footage than the 2011 resolution, which are planned to be assisted living for people with developmental and medical disabilities.

Edward Boehm (1913-1969) was a sculptor, famous for his use of porcelain to create realistic bird sculptures and other animals. He owned a small studio in Trenton where his work really flourished and he lived in the Township with his wife, Helen, who helped market and sell his creations. His property was landscaped with exotic trees and flowers from around the world, along with lavish fountains, ponds, and recreational activities like tennis courts and a swimming pool which made it an elegant estate.

Today, Boehm’s pieces are on display in the White House, the Vatican, among other museums, and one of his most notable sculptures was given as a gift from President Richard Nixon to Mao Zedong in the 1970s. Many influential historical figures have visited the property over the years for parties and other events hosted by the Boehms.

The debate was around how the property has been mistreated over the years, and the historical value it brings to the Township. If the Board approved the subdivision, aspects of the lot would have potential to be preserved. If the Board voted against it, the house and other aspects of the property could be knocked down.

“Since the applicants purchased the property in 2004, they have virtually erased all that was wonderful about the property,” said neighbor of the property Tony Lee. “All during this time the result of the applicant’s approach has been years of property neglect. It’s not hard to see that this could be restored again, with commitment from the owner to do so. But, that’s the catch. Getting a commitment from the applicant to do anything that restores or even maintains the property has been impossible.”

Residents of the Township did not voice opposition to an assisted living community, just concern for the preservation and maintenance of the important historical elements of the property.

“I think we’re stuck with a difficult choice,” said Board member John Van Raalte. “We have a saying in Dutch: ‘Donkey doesn’t stub his toe twice against the same stone.’ Unfortunately, I believe history teaches us that the maintenance just isn’t really going to happen and that makes the choice difficult. Either you give up a historical value of the site or you bet on something that is unlikely to happen.”

Zoning Board Attorney Kevin Van Hise kept the Board on track, but also explained what the vote would mean going forward, in terms of preservation for the property.

“The variances that have been sought here are essentially to preserve, as best as possible, or at least have potential to be able to have preservation of those if the funding can be obtained or those grant sources come through,” said Van Hise.

The Board ultimately approved the application to divide the lots, but made sure to put their concerns regarding maintenance, historical preservation, and safety concerns on record.

“Are we going to clean the place up and are we going to keep it cleaned up,” said Cane. “Are we going to be a good neighbor? Because I believe you’d have to be gullible or blind to think we have been a good neighbor. We have let it go, trees unkempt, grass uncut. I certainly hope we would be a good neighbor this time.”

The Board’s next meeting will be announced in the new year.

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