Toms River Zoning Allows Religious Land Use After DOJ Threatens Huge Fine

Downtown Toms River.

The Toms River township will allow shul or other houses of worship to build on 2-acre parcels, a measure passed by the Township Council after the federal Department of Justice threatened to slap the town with a $10 million fine.

The council voted 6-to-1 Tuesday to approve the zoning change, with Councilman Daniel Rodrick the one dissenting vote, Asbury Park Press reported. Assistant Township Attorney Anthony Merlino and Marci Hamilton, an expert in religious land use hired by the town, warned the council to accept the settlement with the Justice Department or face a $10 million fine.

As Hamodia previously reported, the DOJ opened an investigation into Toms River in 2017 for violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) which prohibits using needlessly restrictive zoning laws to discriminate against religious practice. In September 2020, the DOJ ruled the township had violated RLUIPA, and opened settlement talks with the town. If the town failed to agree, it would risk losing control over its ability to dictate zoning laws.

Toms River’s previous zoning laws required that houses of worship built on 10 acre plots of property at minimum. The particular zoning requirement, passed in 2009, was widely perceived as an effort to deter more Jewish families from moving in.

Rabbi Avi Schnall, director of Agudath Israel of America’s New Jersey office, told Hamodia the township’s measure was “a mixed bag.”

“On one hand,” he said, “it shows that the township recognizes the original ordinances were discriminatory. However, the reality is that requiring two acres to build is problematic. Because in almost every neighborhood where Jews live, you can’t find two acres. You can find one, one and a half acres. So though this is a very big move and appreciated, this does not really resolve the issue.”


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