Land Use and Shuls Front and Center in Toms River Election
A recent Asbury Park Press article highlighted the prominent place that issues surrounding Toms River’s Orthodox population have taken in its local elections set to be held this November.
Most prominent is a proposed zoning change that would significantly reduce the amount of acreage needed to build a house of worship. The 10 acre requirement, has stymied the development of shuls in the North Dover area which is home to several hundred Orthodox families.
The proposal was released last month, but was quickly pulled from the agenda by retiring Town Council President, George Wittman Jr. He and Council Vice President Maurice “Mo” Hill said they would not support the change. Yet, later, Mr. Hill, a Republican, said that he would approve it if it would satisfy federal authorities who are presently investigating the town’s land use laws amid accusations of bias.
Mr. Hill’s Democratic rival, Jonathan Petro, has increasingly seized on the issue, in attempt to paint his opponent as sympathetic to the needs of the Orthodox community. Mr. Hill has vehemently denied that he has been influenced by any special interests.
Toms River is one of the state’s largest Republican strongholds, but in 2017 elections three Democrats won seats on its council largely with rhetoric criticizing what they portrayed as the council’s accommodation of the Orthodox community’s growth. Some of their campaign literature was criticized as anti-Semitic. One of the group’s most outspoken members, Daniel Roderick, who was recently censured by his fellow council members, re-registered as a Republican shortly after the election.
A last-minute move to pull a zoning change that would have eased stiff restrictions on building houses of worship in Toms River boiled over into a public squabble among the township’s Council members.
Township documents reveal that under pressure from the federal Department of Justice (DOJ), the Council had acquiesced to amend an ordinance that required a 10-acre lot in order to build a house of worship, along with a set of related bylaws that have stood in the way of applications from both shuls and mosques in the past.
Yet, last week, when changes appeared on the agenda of a Land Use Committee hearing, they were suddenly pulled. Council President George Wittmann and Council Vice President Maurice “Mo” Hill both questioned how the amendments had found their way to meeting and stated that they would oppose such moves.
Shortly after the Council leaders’ statements appeared in the Asbury Park Press, Councilwoman Laurie Huryk called them out in a press release.
“Council President Wittmann knows exactly how the zoning changes ended up on the Land Use Committee agenda; the Township had committed to the Department of Justice that Toms River would be brought into compliance with Federal Law this year,” she said. “These corrective actions had been discussed many times, and needed to be enacted in a timely manner in order to save the taxpayers of Toms River untoward fines and penalties resulting from the current Federal Investigation.”
Neither Council President Wittmann nor Vice President Hill returned requests for comment from Hamodia.
The DOJ initially opened an investigation of Tom River’s land use regulations vis-à-vis religious organizations in 2016. At the time, a lawsuit was before the courts from the town’s Chabad house, which claimed restrictions on its operation were motivated by a spillover of efforts to block an influx of Orthodox Jews to the town’s North Dover section, which borders Lakewood.
Chabad won the suit and the investigation was closed in April 2018. However, according to a township report on land use rules affecting houses of worship, in December of that year the DOJ announced it was reopening investigations.
Months earlier, the township hired Marci Hamilton, a legal expert specializing in religious land use and a well-known advocate against the expansion of rights for faith groups to advise the Council.
Over the past four years, Mrs. Hamilton’s clients have suffered a string of losses in clashes with Orthodox groups, including attempts to stymie construction of a new Chabad center in Boca Raton, an eruv in Westhampton Beach, Long Island, and a kollel and affiliated housing in Pomona, New York.
The Council, Mrs. Hamilton, and other township officials met with both the DOJ and on at least one occasion with representatives of Toms River’s Orthodox community to appraise the legal viability of its ordinances. The result was an agreement to several changes, most notably a reduction from 10 to seven acres in order to build a house of worship. According to media reports, a clause was also accepted that would lower that to two acres in North Dover, but this is absent from the released documents.
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