Controversy Over Proposed Zoning Changes For Houses of Worship in Toms River

LAKEWOOD -
Downtown Toms River.

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.

In the aftermath of Councilwoman Huryk’s accusations, Council President Wittmann told the Asbury Park Press that different options had been discussed with attorneys, but that none had been approved. He stated that he would not “vote for anything that reduces the zoning.” Likewise, Councilman Hill said “my colleagues and I on the Council approved the existing zoning regulations for houses of worship over the last 10 years and I think we got it right,” and stated a clear opposition to changes.

Councilwoman Huryk said that both men had “attended every meeting where modifications to these zoning ordinances, including specific acreage, have been discussed.”

“With this statement they are going back on their word to the Department of Justice, placing the Township of Toms River and its taxpayers at great financial risk in addition to an increased likelihood of being ordered to lower the zoning much further than 7 acres,” she said.

In accordance with protocol, a DOJ spokesman would not comment to Hamodia on whether an investigation of Toms River was in progress or not, or on any details. Yet, the Department has taken an increased interest in enforcement of RLUIPA, a federal law that forbids discretionary use of zoning and other ordinances against religious groups.

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions kicked off the DOJ’s unveiling of a Religious Liberties task force by opening a lawsuit against a northern New Jersey town attempting to block construction of a Chabad house. Present Attorney General William Barr has a long history of interest in the topic, and during his first tenure at the DOJ in the early 1990s, twice sued the town of Airmont for attempts to limit an influx of Orthodox families.

Toms River’s 10-acre requirement was enacted in 2009, several years before any significant growth of its Orthodox community, though some have publicly speculated that the ordinance was intended to block efforts to build a mosque and an Islamic school in the town, a project that has been stalled for years.

Councilwoman Huryk herself was elected as part of a slate of three Democrats who won Council seats in 2017 running largely on a campaign opposed to “Lakewood style” development, which some felt often bordered on anti-Semitism. The most outspoken of the group, Councilman Daniel Roderick, re-registered as a Republican shortly after the win. The trio’s victory in a heavily Republican town, where the GOP has dominated the Council for years, seemed to highlight the high priority many Toms River voters give to such issues.

Council Huryk told Hamodia that she felt the proposed zoning changes are the best route for Toms River to take under the circumstances.

“The Department of Justice has indicated that the township’s zoning ordinances may not be in alignment with federal regulations. We have a choice: We can have a seat at the table and determine the zoning for our own township, or we can wait for the federal government to impose zoning upon us. I would rather have a voice,” she said.

With elections for Town Council and mayor quickly approaching this coming November, the issue of development and the Orthodox community’s growth are once again a key topic.

The town’s mayor, Thomas Kelaher, announced his retirement earlier this year. This past June, Councilman Hill won an upset victory in the GOP primary, besting former Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato.

Booky Kaluszyner, a member of the Toms River Jewish Community Council, told Hamodia that many in the town’s Orthodox community were disappointed with the Council leader’s statements on zoning changes. Yet he expressed optimism that amendments would be implemented after elections.

“We are confident in the Toms River governing body and that they will do what’s right and just,” he said. “They have proven this to be true time and again, and our sentiments remain the same irrespective of who wins the election come November.”