30 November 2007

Thank You

This is a quick note to thank everyone that made tonight's basket auction fundraiser for Autism Speaks a huge success.

A big thank you to all of the area businesses that donated prizes and food, and to all of the volunteers that have worked for three months or more to set up this event.

And of course we wish to thank all of the 150 plus ticket buyers that came out to the North Branch Fire House and helped us raise more than $8000 for this great cause.

29 November 2007

All Aboard?

The Hillsborough Township Committee is set to pass a resolution endorsing the re-activation of passenger rail service on the CSX West Trenton Line. This is supposed to be a first step in the town's effort to lobby New Jersey Transit. In reality, the towns involved have been in favor of this plan for a long time - it wouldn't have gotten this far if they had been opposed.

That's one way of looking at it. A cynic might say that NJ Transit is going to do what they want, whether the towns are with them or against them. A cynic might think that today's meeting at the municipal complex was more about "promotion" than "feedback". Was it? I was unable to attend - so you tell me.

The most interesting statistic from NJ Transit's study of the project comes from the "ridership forecast". They estimate that there will be 2,660 riders each day on the new service. That sounds pretty good - until you realize that 1,420 of those riders will be commuters that have moved over from other rail lines. There will be only 1,240 NEW riders per day on this $220 million railroad! Did I mention that those are 2007 dollars - and that the line would also need $12 million a year in operating subsidies from the state (that means you and me).

And don't forget - NJ Transit actually uses the term "trips", not "riders". When we realize that nearly ALL of the trips will be "round trips", then we conclude that just 620 PEOPLE will be ditching their cars to ride the rails each day - 620 people from all of the towns along the route - Ewing, Hopewell Township, Hopewell Boro, Montgomery, Hillsborough, as well as the other neighboring towns.

Despite that, I'm for it. If they just change one thing...

28 November 2007

What a Load of Dirt!

It's time again for a Weird, Wild, and Wicked story from Hillsborough's past. Today's story takes us back to the summer of 1965 for an incident that many residents will still remember - especially those living in the area of Brooks Boulevard.
Headline from The New York Times, 1 July 1965

Joseph Utasi of Manville owned a six-acre parcel on the border of Manville and Hillsborough. Actually, almost all of the property was located in Hillsborough - just a small 2-foot strip was in Manville.

18 November 1963 Courier News

A few years earlier, Mr. Utasi became aware of the fact that Brooks Boulevard had been extended through his property, Apparently, that right of way had been there since 1925, but had only recently been improved. That fact was of no comfort to Mr. Utasi. By 1963, he was demanding the return of his property and the removal of the road. In November 1963 he briefly put up a fence across the road in protest.

19 November 1963 Courier News

When Hillsborough and Manville declined to return the property, Mr. Utasi had another idea. He would give up his rights to the disputed land if Manville would annex ALL of his property. He believed he had a deal, but a year later nothing had been done.

19 November 1963 Home News

At this point, he decided to take another course of action. He woke up one morning at his home on Seventh Street and got some dirt. Forty-five tons of dirt to be precise - which he proceeded to dump on Brooks Boulevard in the vicinity of 20th Avenue. He erected a sign which read "Private Property - No Trespassing".

30 June 1965 Courier News

There is no report on the reaction of the residents of the new Village Green development, but they couldn't have been very pleased. Hillsborough and Manville officials were also not pleased - Brooks Boulevard was then, as it is now, a main link between the towns - and quickly got a court order for the removal of the dirt.

1 July 1965 Philadelphia Daily News

An Associated Press report that appeared in the July 2, 1965, edition of the New York Times quoted Mr. Utasi as saying, "I'm a man of action. I put it down, so I can pick it up. I was directed by the court to do it, and I did it."

Joseph Utasi was charged with obstructing a public street by depositing debris - which must certainly be the wildest case of understatement in Hillsborough judicial history!

27 November 2007

Ch Ch Ch Ch Changes

When I was a kid I was a big sports fan. My teams were the Mets, Knicks, Islanders, and Jets - and I guess they still are. One of the cool things about following your favorite team thirty years ago was that you always knew who was on the roster, year after year. You didn't just root for the uniform - you followed the players' careers. When your favorites were traded, that was a big deal.

Things are different today. Free agency has changed the way sports work. Trading and signing players has become a game of its own -and an exciting one. Every general manager is working to make his team better - to improve performance - to achieve goals. The World Series, The Superbowl, The Stanley Cup - everyone wants to get there, even if it means changing the team on a yearly basis.

Hillsborough Schools are going through some changes too. So many, that it feels like we have a whole new team! And, although it would not be proper for me to comment here on those changes (and I won't), I can give you an idea of the changes that have taken place since the summer, and what the administrative roster will look like by the middle of January:

  • New Superintendent
  • New Business Administrator
  • New Assistant Business Administrator
  • New Director of Human Resources
  • New Transportation Director
  • New Special Services Director
  • New Math Supervisor
  • New Fine and Performing Arts Supervisor
  • New Principal at Auten Road School
  • New Principal at Woods Road School
  • New Principal at Triangle School
  • New Public Information Officer

Even though the days of Garvey, Russell, Lopes, and Cey appear to be over, I know the residents of Hillsborough are always rooting for the schools. I am too.

26 November 2007

Extra Innings for Boro Bombers

Two months ago the Hillsborough Township Committee rescinded its initial approval for the construction of a youth baseball field near Surrey Drive. This was undoubtedly the right call - what initially looked like a win-win for the township and the kids, would have been a big mistake. The Surrey Drive field has problems with parking, emergency access, and restroom facilities - it just isn't suitable for organized sports.

In a previous blog entry, I suggested another possible home for the nine-year-olds known as the Boro Bombers. Now the Township Committee has come up with their alternative: a 20 acre parcel adjacent to the Hillsborough Promenade. That's fine with me. My suggestion was only to show that there were other sites available - that the town didn't have to be locked into its first choice.

Residents will get their chance to speak out about this new proposal at the next Township Committee meeting. I expect there to be valid objections to this proposal also - but probably not enough to kill it.

The important thing to remember about small parcels like this that are donated for open space is that if they are not put to use, they become eyesores. Large contiguous tracts are different - they can provide greenways, or scenic vistas, that add to the beauty of our town. There is nothing scenic about overgrown weed-fields.

When the Boro Bombers step up to the plate next month to take another crack at the Township Committee, they are sure to be swinging for the fences. This time, it looks like a home run.

21 November 2007

Spouseless, Troutless, Dead

Wednesday, October 6, 1926, was a mild autumn day in Hillsborough, New Jersey. Stanley, Stanley, and Paul decided to spend the afternoon fishing. Stanley number one is 32-year-old Stanley Sobotka - a still young veteran of the Great War with a wife and two small children at home in South Somerville. Stanley number two is his friend Stanley Gersarek. Paul is Paul Prevosnec - the unwitting villain.

South Branch Railroad Bridge, Postcard circa 1909

The three friends made their way to a favorite fishing spot on a bridge crossing the Raritan River north of the Duke Estate. This bridge was used by the Central Railroad of New Jersey's Flemington Branch, which ran southwest from Somerville, across the river, and through the Duke Estate, and on to Flagtown, Neshanic Station, Three Bridges, and Flemington.

Headline from The New York Time, 7 October 1926

The men had an unusually large catch that day - which must have cheered Sobotka, who was in a state of extreme melancholy all afternoon. He couldn't stop talking about his wife who had left him just three days before. He seemed inconsolable. The large quantities of alcohol consumed by the three probably didn't help either - but at least they had the fish!

7 October 1926 Home News

Around 8 PM, as the friends gathered their belongings for the trek home, Prevosnec quietly put everyone's fish into a bag and slipped away in the darkness. Upon discovering that their friend had made off with the fish, Gersarsek began to laugh. Surely this was a joke - all in fun. But Sobotka was not in a joking mood, remarking, "It's tough enough to lose your wife, but when your friend runs away with the fish you've caught, that's the limit!".

7 October 1926 Home News

Gersarsek told the police what happened next: "We heard the rumbling of the train approaching. I told him to look out, but he kept walking towards the track. I said 'Don't walk over there, the train is coming and you'll be killed'. I ran and grabbed him by the arm to pull him back, but Sobotka pulled away and sat on the rails. He said 'I don't give a damn if it does come. My wife has left me, and now Prevosnec has run off with the fish'. I tried again to pull him to safety, but I had to leap back when the locomotive was upon us."

In an instant, Stanley Sobotka was killed. Spouseless, troutless, and dead.

20 November 2007

Location, Location, Location

Are you ready for rail service to return to Hillsborough? The project to restore service to the West Trenton Line is on track(!), and trains could be chugging into Hillsborough Station within 10 years - certainly within 20.

It's not too early to begin thinking about what having a New Jersey Transit train station in Hillsborough will do to our community. NJ Transit is looking for public comments on the project, and will be holding a meeting at the municipal complex on November 29 from 4:00 PM to 8:00 PM.

Along with the station comes the idea of a "transit village" - a commercial and residential development around the station, designed, in essence, for rail commuters. This is an idea that the state is pushing - and it seems inevitable. This is one of the reasons that the eventual location of the station should be paramount.

I am not convinced that the placement of a Hillsborough train station near Amwell Road and Clerico Lane is in the best interests of the town. Isn't there a better spot for "the village"?

I'll have more thoughts on this in a couple of days. Think it over and let me have your ideas in the comments section of the blog. Choo Choo!

19 November 2007

Bizarro World

"Shall a charter study commission be elected to study the charter of the township to consider a new charter or improvements in the present charter and to make recommendations thereon?"

Haven't we already done this?

Yes, we have - now it's someone else's turn. This Friday, while we Hillsborough residents are making turkey sandwiches and nursing our tryptophan hangovers, residents of the Union County Township of Union will be celebrating the 199th birthday of their township, and considering whether to make its bicentennial year its last.

More Deja Vu.

A local citizen's group had been organizing a petition drive to put a government change question on next year's ballot. The group, Citizens for a United Union, has called for a Mayor-Council form of government with a directly elected mayor, with both ward representatives and at large councilmen. The Township Committee, some of whom support the idea of a directly elected mayor(!), introduced the charter study ordinance because they questioned the motives and financial backing of CUU, and wanted to prevent the spread of misinformation.

As we know from our own recent history, a charter study ordinance trumps a petition drive - if it is introduced and adopted legally - and apparently the Township Committee in Union has all of their ducks in a row thus far. Perhaps they learned from the missteps in our town.

I don't know a lot about Union Township, but I do know this. Its 54,000 residents live in a municipality that is 9 square miles in size. That comes out to 6000 residents per square mile. Contrast that with Hillsborough's 40,000 residents in 54 square miles - or about 750 per square mile - and you can see that a government form used by the cities may actually be appropriate for Union Township. This is one large densely populated township!

Ready for the twist?

Union County democrats have had control of the Township Committee for ten years - and they are the ones resistant to change! We know from Hillsborough's Charter Study that one of the main reasons behind the push for government change is that the party on the "outs" wants "in", while the party in power, wants to stay there. We also know that this is not a good reason to change government forms.

Unlike Hillsborough, there may be a few good reasons to change forms in Union - about 6000 per square mile!

14 November 2007

The Outrage at Sourland Mountain

The New York Times called it "The Outrage at Sourland Mountain". Newspapers nationwide picked up the story - writing at first with condemnation and indeed outrage towards the perpetrators, and later with astonishment that such an act could be committed - and even tolerated - in the modern age. It was January 1877.

24 January 1877, Troy, New Yor, Daily Times

Amos and Ida Sheppard lived in a small neat two-story house on Hollow Road on the Sourland Mountain - just across the border from Hillsborough in Montgomery Township. At that time, living on the mountain was a bit like living in the Wild West - hard-drinking, hard-living, hard-loving. Ida specialized in loving. It was rumored that she got a little too intimate with the husbands of her neighbors, causing her to earn a bad reputation.

A portion of the 1873 map of Hillsborough.
Blue stars indicate the homes of some of the principal figures,
and the location of the store

Fanny Conover of Montgomery-Zion Road took particular exception to Ida Sheppard's behavior. When Ida ran away for a dalliance with her son-in-law Jake Hegeman (who happened to be Ida's cousin) she said it made her "feel bad". Hegeman had money but left none for his own wife and three children which he left in the care of his mother-in-law.

28 January 1877 New York Daily Herald

Mrs. Conover spoke freely about her indignation with some of her female neighbors - all of whom agreed with her. She told her friends that she would pay handsomely if someone would tar and feather Mrs. Sheppard, or do something else to punish her. This news made its way to Jacob Sheppard, Ida's brother-in-law, who lived on Zion Road. He made a visit to Mrs. Conover the next day to find out if she was serious. She said she was - but later claimed that this was the last she heard about it until the deed was done.

The store at Rock Mills as it looked in the 1930s.

On January 10th William Docherty, 18 years old, was on his way to a fundraising party at the parsonage in Rock Mills when he stopped into the store run by James Tuttle Peak. There he found his brother Howard (16) and Richard Van Liew (27). They told a story about Fanny Conover offering half a gallon of rum to anyone that would tar and feather Mrs. Sheppard. When Jacob Sheppard showed up at the store, he agreed to go out to Mrs. Conover's house to check again that she was ready to pay for their services with rum. She was.

24 January 1877 New York Daily Herald

At this news, William Docherty went down the road the Jacob Sheppard's to fetch a couple of jugs of cider - enough to fortify the gang. When he returned to Tuttle Peak's barn, he found that they had been joined by Isaac Peak, John Corbett, Charles Hoff, and Alfred Cray - all young men in their teens and early twenties. Tuttle Peak helped them to black their faces with burnt cork, and heated the tar over his fire, before going upstairs and coming down with a load of feathers.

The men went to the Shepherd house about midnight. They called out for Amos Sheppard but he refused to come to the door. As they crashed through, The Sheppards jumped through a front window wearing only their nightclothes. Amos ran through the freezing snow and out onto Hollow Road. Ida wasn't so fortunate. She slipped on the ice and fell. Isaac Peak grabbed her. Charles Hoff ran after Mr. Sheppard, while William Docherty and Alfred Cray ran back to Peak's store.

The home of Elizabeth Van Liew, 
photographed in 2009

Amos Sheppard ran north to the crossroads and found refuge in the house of Elizabeth Van Liew - a relative of the assailant Richard Van Liew. Freezing and frightened, he took refuge in the Van Liews' setee, and was, in the words of Mrs. Van Liew, "too scared to breathe".

Isaac Peak, Howard Docherty, Richard Van Liew, and John Corbett - fortified by the cider and their own adrenaline - gathered up Ida Sheppard, tore the clothes from her body, and tarred and feathered her right there on the stoop of the Sheppards' back porch.  It was later alleged that there was a further assault on her person. Some accounts say that quartet left her for dead in the snow and continued their drunken reverie through the night, others that they returned her to her bed. In any case, Ida was found later by her husband - unconscious, but alive.

23 January 1977 New York Herald

The seven, proud of their deed, boasted all the next day. They met up at Peak's store and indeed received their reward from Fanny Conover. Of course, Ida, being alive, was able to identify five of her attackers: Richard Van Liew, William Docherty, John Corbett, Alfred Cray, and Charles Hoff. Isaac Peak and Richard Van Liew immediately left the county, but the others were quickly rounded up and fingered Jacob Sheppard, Fanny Conover, and James Tuttle Peak as their accomplices.

The one-day trial took place in Somerville on April 26, 1877. Van Liew, the oldest and perceived as the ringleader, received an 18-month prison sentence, Cray got 15 months, Hoff, one year, and Corbett and William Docherty, each 9 months. Howard Docherty, as a minor, received three months in the county jail.

In the aftermath of the "outrage", all the community feeling was on the side of Ida Sheppard - who after being treated by Dr. Ludlow went to live three miles away with her mother - and against the "desperadoes" and their meager sentences. The Sheppards' marriage had not been a happy one, and it is unlikely that the couple ever reunited.

09 November 2007

Time For a Break?

Dear Readers,

I'm tired. After 101 posts for On Hillsborough, it may be time for a short break. I have decided to take the next four days off, rest a while, and come back November 14 with my first "Weird, Wild, and Wicked Wednesday" story.

But that doesn't mean I am leaving you without your usual dose of Hillsborough commentary. I have asked some friends - with the eerily familiar names Kirby Hoffman, P.F. McGuinn, and Rick Algernon - to fill in for me while I'm gone. Each has a unique perspective on our town - and each certainly has a style all their own.

There may even be a surprise guest commentator, if he's not too busy.

Of course I hope to return the favor for these guys some time by commenting on their towns.

See you in a few days!


P.S. If you're not getting this, this link may provide a preview, of sorts: Courier News Community Blogs.

07 November 2007

You Fool!

Is there such a thing as a foolish vote? Proponents of ballot question 5, which would have changed Hillsborough's form of government from Township Committee to Mayor-Council might say yes.

If you've been reading the letters to the editor and browsing the internet forums these past several weeks in the run-up to the election, it's easy to form the opinion that the 40% who voted for change think the 60% who voted against it are fools. After all, according to the "vote yes" contingent, the vote no crowd was swayed by a big money campaign, duped by lies, and cheated out of their vote.

Well, it's easy to say that now! Of course, those of us who were skeptical from the start - before the campaign - are told that we didn't have an "open mind". No matter that the only individuals in this process legally required to have open minds were the Charter Study Commissioners - and at least one of them, probably two, had their minds made up before the study began.

And here's the twist - I haven't met anyone who voted no on question 5 who thought anyone that voted yes cast a "foolish vote". People that voted yes obviously felt that having a directly elected mayor and separate branches of government trumped any problems or uncertainties of the Mayor-Council form. And that was a perfectly reasonable and appropriate reason to vote yes.

As we see from the outcome Tuesday, it appears that it was unwise to castigate no-voters and fence-sitters for their personal choices. Truly, there are no "foolish votes", only foolish people.

05 November 2007

100 Reasons to Vote No

At one of the first Charter Study Commission meetings, I asked the commissioners to characterize Hillsborough and delineate some of its problems. Describing Hillsborough was easy - it is a suburban community with some semi-rural areas, and little commercial or industrial development. Defining the problems was harder.

I agree with one of the local newspapers that "there are no overwhelming problems facing the community that demand change". The problems that Hillsborough does face - notably development pressures and Route 206 traffic - won't be solved by changing from the Township Committee to the Mayor-Council form of government. And that's too bad.

I attended many Charter Study meetings, and watched the rest on video - and from the very beginning I have been looking for a reason to change. You would have to be a fool not to want to make your town, and your life, better. Lots of reasons were given for why a change is needed - "direct election of mayor", "checks and balances", "four year terms for mayor and council" - but those are merely consequences of voting yes, not reasons TO vote yes. I don't see how any of those things will make the town better, only different.

I have also been following the "Vote No" campaign. For a lot of voters, their statistics concerning the property tax increases in other towns that have changed are particularly compelling. For you skeptics, consider this: if there were any towns where property taxes went DOWN by 39% or 16% or even 2% after changing to Mayor-Council, don't you think you would have heard about it by now?

The Mayor-Council form of government is a more complex form that undoubtedly works best for more complex towns. It allows the mayor to do things that we don't need to be done, and forbids the council from doing things that we have come to expect. It's not right for us.

I'm voting no on Question 5. This is not a vote against the work of the Charter Study Commission, or even a vote against Mayor-Council, but rather a vote to preserve our simple form of government - one which is small and close to the people. A government that isn't broken, and that is working every day for our community.

And if you're wondering about the title of this blog - this is my 100th blog entry for On Hillsborough, and I wanted to work in the number 100 somewhere. You don't need 100 reasons to vote no, you just need one. Make it a good one.

See you at the polls.

04 November 2007

No "Off" Year in Hillsborough

Will you be voting on Tuesday? If you will, you won't be alone - it will only seem that way. Many of Hillsborough's voters will likely stay away from the polls this year. After all, this is traditionally the most "off" of "off years" - no Presidential race, no US Senators, no Congressmen, no Governor. If only there were some other local question to galvanize voters.

Just kidding.

On November 6 Hillsborough will choose whether to keep its current Township Committee form of government, or change to a Mayor-Council form of government. Each form has its strengths and weaknesses. Yes and no are each valid choices - just as TC and MC are each valid forms of government.

How will you vote? This is your chance to make a pitch right here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment". Take a minute to let us know how you are voting and why.

03 November 2007

Flagtown Eats Trains

Traffic Delayed at Flemington

Flemington, N.J., Nov. 28. Ten inches of snow fell here. The storm was the severest since the memorable blizzard of 1888. All the country roads are drifted full, and overland traffic is impossible. Only one of the large number of milkmen reached Flemington today, and a milk famine resulted.

The Flemington branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad was opened last evening by three engines and a snow plow. No trains have arrived over the South Branch of the Central Railroad. A train from Somerville this morning attempted to reach here, and became stalled in a deep cut near Flagtown. The train was shovelled out and returned to Somerville. No attempt was made to open the road until today.

The newspaper train on the Lehigh Valley Railroad became stalled in a deep cut near Flagtown about 4:30 yesterday morning. Express train No. 1, also bound west, became stalled near the same place about four hours later. Both trains have been shovelled out. All trains now being run over the east bound tracks at that point.

[Trenton Times, 26 November 1898]

02 November 2007

My Favorite Day of the Year

My favorite day of the year comes a week later in 2007 - yep, you guessed, it's time to "fall back". Early Sunday Morning, November 4, it will be time once again to say goodbye to Daylight Savings Time by setting our clocks back one hour. This is the first year the United States is employing its extended daylight savings hours, and it seems to have been a success thus far - despite the fact that most of the world is sticking to the old shorter daylight savings period, which ended last weekend.

Yes, the U.S. is a time rebel! But at least our familiar Time Zones are still intact. A recent AP article in the Courier News chronicled the plan by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez to set his nation's clocks back by 30 minutes. Apparently he does not wish to be in the same time zone as the "imperialist powers" in Washington D.C. Venezuelan government officials have been studying this change for eight years, and had planned to make the switch by the end of last month.

The original U.S. time zones were not conceived of or implemented by the U.S. government, but rather by the U.S. and Canadian railway companies. Before their adoption of standard time zones on November 18, 1883, each railroad company kept its own "standard time" - which may or may not have been in sync with any of the "local times" kept by municipalities or counties.

The U.S. Congress didn't get into the act until March 1918, when they passed the Standard Time Act. This law also created Daylight Savings Time, as a way to have more daylight hours in the evening, and created what is arguably every parent's favorite day of the year - the day with the extra hour of sleep!

I'm going to use my extra hour to sleep and dream. Maybe dream of a world where there is no "spring ahead"!

01 November 2007


If you are a regular reader of On Hillsborough, you will have noticed that many of my recent posts have included satellite photos of locations in our town. I guess you could say that I am addicted to Google Maps! Many of you have probably used Google Maps, or Google Earth, to get a bird's eye view of your house or neighborhood. Sometimes things look very different when viewed from directly above, and sometimes the buildings and other structures make very unusual patterns.

Take for example this satellite image.

View Larger Map

These are The Meadows townhouses on Bloomingdale Drive, one of Hillsborough's most unique developments.

The story of The Meadows goes all the way back to 1969 when Hillsborough created a "planned unit development" zone in the triangle between Amwell Road and Route 206. This plan provided for up to 8200 units of garden apartments - and indeed applications were filed for construction of 8000 units.

Then the residents found out. There was no way semi-rural Hillsborough was ready for 8000 residential units. Over a period of six years, township officials renegotiated with builders - eventually bringing the density of development down from 10 units per acre to 4.

Architect Daniel Cahill designed the project in 1977 to include about 1000 homes. Each of the approximately 60 "clusters" includes sixteen 1400 square foot residences. There is a driveway into the center of the cluster for vehicles, and garages are under each unit.

Interestingly enough, because these are only two bedroom units, it initially took seven to eight houses to produce one school age child! In 1977, when housing prices were not as outrageous as they are today, most growing families opted for still affordable single family homes. Of course, today, there are many school age children living in The Meadows - but in 1977, when the yearly cost to educate one child in our schools was $1500, the eight units it took to produce that child paid a collective $10,000 in property taxes!

Yes folks, there was a time when residential development meant a revenue surplus for the town. In fact, there was so much money coming in, that, because of state caps on expenditures, Hillsborough literally could not spend it all!

Now that's the kind of unusual pattern we'll likely never see again, even with a bird's eye view.