TOMS RIVER-It has been a controversial issue in Toms River and one of the cornerstone debates of the 2019 Toms River mayoral election between Toms River Mayor Maurice Hill and his opponent Jonathan Petro. Now, Hill, according to township documents obtained by Shore News Network, is at it again, trying to rally support for smaller zoning for houses of worship.
Hill has been meeting with residents and lobbying other township council members behind the scenes to devise a plan to reduce restrictions on 10 acre house of worship zoning laws that have so far prevented Orthodox Jews from building a synagogue in the North Dover section of town.
The Orthodox community has also been lobbying township officials behind the scene after the issue became a contentious one last summer when Hill was accused by Democrats of sneaking a zoning change through town hall reducing those limits while rallying election support for his campaign in the North Dover section of town.
In September, Hill, who was running for Mayor in Toms River had previously said he knew nothing about a proposed ordinance to reduce the 10-acre zoning requirement for houses of worship in Toms River. Laurie Huryk, Hill’s fellow councilwoman said that Hill’s comments at the time were hogwash and Hill knew about the ordinance, even suggesting he was involved in the drafting of the ordinance.
A Toms River Council Land Use Committee meeting held on August 20th, 2019 shows exactly who agreed to draft a resolution to be voted on by the Toms River Township Council in September. According to documents released by the township, Councilman Maurice Hill, Councilwoman Laurie Huryk, Planning Board Vice Chairman Bob Stone, Business Administrator Don Guardian, Dave Roberts, Wendy Birkhead, Ken Fitzsimmons Esq, and Anthony Merlino Esq were all present according to the minutes of that meeting.
The discussion was held in regards to the growing Orthodox Jewish population and a request by the Department of Justice to revisit the township’s existing 10-acre minimum ordinance restrictions on houses of worship, particularly synagogues within the community.
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At that meeting, Anthony Merlino updated the committee on the status of the Guttman RLUIPA litigation.
“No response from the DOJ has been received on the Township’s submission, but we need to follow up on the ordinance amendments covered in the most recently adopted Master Plan reexamination report,” Merlino said.
According to the official meeting minutes, officially approved by the entire Land Use Committee, including Hill, Huryk and Councilman George Wittman.
“The committee agreed that the RLUIPA (DOJ) amendments should be addressed at the September meeting of the LUC,” the minutes read.
In the ordinance drafted by Merlino as a result of the approvals given at the August 20th meeting, the township proposed a reduction in the acreage required township wide for houses of worship from 10 acres to 7 acres. Additionally, section 348-9.5.1 called for “Small-site places of worship”. Those small sites would require just two acres.
The ordinance has been a sore subject for residents in the growing Orthodox Jewish community who feel the existing 10-acre zoning law prohibits the building of a formal synagogue in the community, forcing many residents to conduct their sabbath prayer services in homes throughout the community.
Shore News Network has filed an OPRA request with the Township of Toms River to validate the authenticity of the communications between Hill and other town council officials on this matter, requesting email headers from email conversations between the elected body.