Does Politics Have a Role to Play in Pastoral Long Valley?

Our first foray into a new series called Voting Block, whose goal is to get neighbors talking about their political beliefs — and hopefully listening to one another

[img-wide:/assets/17/0612/1905]Some residents of Long Valley, a small uncrowded corner of western Morris County, are so taken with the beauty of the area and slower lifestyle that their wish is a simple one: to shut the door behind them.

“We wanted to be the last to move here,” noted Bill Wolgamuth, 84, of the local mindset.

Click to expand/close
Set amid rolling hills dotted with horse farms and other fields, the community is part of the 45-square-mile Washington Township. Long Valley lives up to its name, stretching eight miles along East and West Mill Road, also known as County Route 513, with wooded ridges rising several hundred feet on either side. Along Mill Road, acres of farm fields remain interspersed among old stone houses, historic barns and mills, and open access to the river. The south branch of the Raritan River runs parallel to the road and, in the center of town, under a picturesque quadruple stone arch bridge that brings cars up steep Schooleys Mountain. Deer, turkeys, and other wildlife abound.

[img-narrow:/assets/17/0612/1903]It is this community that NJ Spotlight will focus on as part of a statewide project called Voting Block, a five-month-long effort to get voters to talk to one another, in advance of this fall’s gubernatorial election. With much of the state — and country — polarized when it comes to politics, we thought it was a good time to collaborate on a project that gets people talking, and hopefully leads to greater understanding.

Media outlets across the state, starting with WHYY radio from Philadelphia, WNYC News from New York, and The Record of the USA Today Network, will each be taking a community from around the state and looking at the election through the lens of those voters. More than a dozen other news outlets will be joining the project this summer.

Down in the valley

Long Valley is a very different place from the kind most people conjure when they think of New Jersey.

It’s GOP territory, but more than a handful of Democrats live in this wealthy and overwhelmingly white (87 percent) community of 1,835 people. The residents are well-educated, with 53 percent of adults holding at least a bachelor’s degree. About four in 10 families have at least one child under age 18, while almost a quarter include at least one senior citizen. Long Valley hearkens back to a slower, simpler time.

Bill Wolgamuth
 Bill Wolgamuth, president of the local Republican club and his wife Myra were teaching in Plainfield in the 1960s when they decided to move to Long Valley. Back then it was mostly woods and farmland.

“We truly, truly love the area,” said Wolgamuth, who went on to become principal of the high school in neighboring Mount Olive, a position from which he retired 25 years ago. “We live on probably one of the most beautiful roads in the area … I don’t mind at all that we don’t see a police car down the road except maybe two times a month. I don’t want sidewalks and street lights. It’s really a great place to live, a very safe community, a very warm community.”

At the center of Long Valley, the crossroads area forms what is essentially the local “downtown.” For most of the last century, Welsh Farms made ice cream and other dairy products there, but the plant closed and the site is now a housing development. Neighboring Frazier Industrial, a manufacturer of structural steel storage systems, remains. But the majority of businesses are smaller: several restaurants, bank, convenience store, three gas stations, some professional offices, and a combination hardware store, garden center, building supply, and rental center.

Houses and farms

Businesses are a small part of the town — 92 percent of Washington Township is residential and farm properties. More than 10,000 acres are farmland, 34 percent of the township’s total acreage. There are traditional farms, horse farms, Christmas tree farms, a sheep creamery making and selling cheese, and an agritourism destination with activities for children that also sells produce and flowers. The lack of commercial ratables, as well as preferential farmland assessments have left the typical home owner with a hefty property tax bill: The average residential property was valued at $438,000 last year and paid $10,600 on average in taxes.

Washington Township is a wealthy community, with a median household income of $124,000 and a 3 percent poverty rate estimated by the U.S. Census American Community Survey. Living there is expensive, with the owner holding a mortgage on a home paying about $3,000 a month in housing costs.

Carol Grobels
“The town has no ratables, which is both a plus and a minus,” said Carol Grobels, who moved to Long Valley with her family 28 years ago and at 62 is “blissfully retired” from her job as a computer programmer analyst with a large insurance company.

More deer than people

“I like the fact that the deer outnumber the people,” said Grobels, current president of the township Democratic committee.

But the lack of commercial businesses to help relieve some of the tax burden from residents is probably the biggest problem facing the community, she said. “We keep our bucolic status, but the taxes are pretty high. At some point, something will have to give.”

Still, it’s a community where Grobels and her husband remain happy.

“The residents are family oriented and always willing to help each other,” Grobels said. “I like not having to lock my doors. I like the peace and quiet.”

According to the 2016 Uniform Crime Report, there were a total of 10 serious crimes, just two of them considered violent, in all of 2015 and 2016.

Sometimes not locking up the house in a rural area can prove problematic. For instance, last week a bobcat — possibly rabid — jumped through an open window into a farmhouse on East Mill Road, prompting a woman who had recently moved in to flee with her two children into a bathroom and lock the door. The bobcat eventually jumped back out the window and it, or a different cat, was captured across town in a barn.

A Dutch settlement

Long Valley historical marker
A brochure on the history of the township relates that it was settled in the early 1700s by a group of Dutch who came to the New World fleeing religious persecution. By the mid-1700s, Germans fleeing war and famine were the predominant settlers, building mills, establishing farms, and erecting many of the houses that still stand. The area was called German Valley for more than 100 years until 1918, when residents, prompted by Germany’s actions in World War I, changed the name to Long Valley. A nod to its roots, the most common ancestry of residents remains German.

Many like the charm and history of the many old buildings in town.

Laura Knipmeyer and her husband were in New Jersey looking for a place to live as they were interviewing for jobs that would bring them closer to family. Soon after setting foot in the circa 1747 home in which they now live, her husband said he wanted to buy it, even though Knipmeyer urged caution because “we didn’t even know where we were.” They moved into their historic home that backs onto the Columbia Trail natural area and walking path 31 years ago.

After 25 years as a pharmaceuticals executive, her job was eliminated seven years ago and Knipmeyer and her husband considered moving to some place less expensive. She said they looked in a dozen places in the Southeast before making the decision to stay.

“We came home and we said there’s no way we can ever leave this place,” said Knipmeyer, an independent voter who has been an active community leader for decades. “We adore the rural nature.”

Building boom

Long Valley strip mall
The township would be even less developed had it not been for the building booms of the 1970s and 1980s, when almost half of the 6,600 houses in Washington Township were built. That taught the community a lesson, and officials enacted stricter rules to govern development, and the governing body and residents worked hard to try to preserve what open space they could. They got help from a somewhat eccentric, wealthy resident named Jack Borgenicht, who amassed about 1,200 acres that he kept undeveloped. After his death, most of his property was preserved with state, county, and local open space monies and foundation funding. He also bought the historic Trimmer barn and six acres and renovated the multistory stone bank barn built in 1771 by German immigrants into the area’s first brew pub.

The township was one of the first in the state to have a municipal land trust, established in 1990. The group manages several properties, including 230 acres formerly owned by Borgenicht. Its main project is the restoration and preservation of the Obadiah LaTourette Grist and Saw Mill, dating to 1750 and located on 10 acres of land between East Mill Street and the river.

Like much of the rest of northwest Jersey, the township is red. There has not been a time in recent memory when Republicans lost control of all the seats on the township committee. Last year, Donald Trump won there with almost 60 percent of more than 10,000 ballots cast. Citizens were somewhat more politically involved than in the state as a whole: 74 percent of those registered voted in the presidential election, compared with a statewide average of 68 percent.

Single-party control does not sit well with some Democrats.

long-valley horse
George Collins, a retired father of three who moved to Long Valley from Silicon Valley three decades ago, said he is among those who feel “somewhat uncomfortable” with what they see as a “lack of transparency we seem to have with our decades-long single-party local government.”

There is a feeling, said township Democratic party leader Carol Grobels and others, that committee members are making decisions among themselves and without public input. When Republicans counter that the committee holds regular meetings that include a public comment period, Grobels called that “theater.”

The elected committee members make both email addresses and their phone numbers available to the public, noted Thomas Lotito, a piano tuner who moved to Long Valley in 1984 after coming to the area to tune a piano and deciding he wanted to live there.

“I don’t see them as having to reach out to you,” said Lotito, a Republican.

Despite the one-party control, the parties do get along and have been known to work together on issues — a recent one was the proposed breakup of the West Morris Regional High School district that Washington Township is a member of.

“As far as I know,” said Bill Wolgamuth, “we don’t even fight back and forth, between Democrats and Republicans.”