Toms River zoning change allows places of worship on 2-acre plots
TOMS RIVER – Places of worship can be built on 2-acre plots in Toms River after city council passed a measure on Tuesday that formally implements a consent decree with the US Department of Justice.
The zoning ordinance replaces a previous measure that required a minimum of 10 acres to build a place of worship. Council voted 6 to 1 on Tuesday to approve the zoning change. City Councilor Daniel Rodrick voted against the zoning change; he also voted against the consent decree in March.
The consent decree ended a more than two-year federal investigation into Toms River’s religious zoning laws, which the Justice Department said discriminated against religious institutions.
Deputy Township Attorney Anthony Merlino and Marci Hamilton, a religious land use expert hired by Toms River in 2018, advised council members to accept the deal with the Department of Justice in March and said on Tuesday that Toms River was likely facing a fine of $ 10 million from the federal government if there was no settlement.
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The township would also have ceded control of its zoning laws if Toms River lost such a lawsuit, Merlino said. The zoning change council passed on Tuesday should help protect the township from future lawsuits, Hamilton said.
The council agreed in September to begin settlement talks with the federal government after the township received a letter from the Department of Justice stating that Toms River’s zoning laws violated land use law and land use laws. institutionalized people (RLUIPA).
The department’s letter said Toms River would face a federal lawsuit within 12 days if the council did not enter into negotiations.
“There was no compelling justification for moving from 2 acres to 10,” Merlino said of the council’s 2017 decision to increase the area needed to build a church, synagogue, mosque or whatever. place of worship. “It’s unprecedented nationally and also locally.”
Prior to this change, the 2-acre zoning requirement for places of worship had been in place since Toms River adopted its modern zoning code in 1979.
“No one has come up with an alternative solution that has not ended in litigation, which has not resulted in millions of dollars in costs and fines and possible loss of control,” said Councilor Matt Lotano.
Huryk said the township had relied on the expertise provided by Hamilton and Merlino when conducting the negotiations and was able to secure “certain concessions from the DOJ.”
“I think it’s the right thing to do. I think it’s the smart thing to do,” she said.
Rodrick read a letter that Mayor Maurice B. “Mo” Hill Jr. sent to residents when he was running for mayor in 2019. In response to an anonymous letter posted by a group called “TR Residents Against Overdevelopment”, Hill said he was “absolutely opposed to zoning 2 acres for places of worship” and would fight the Justice Department in court if the federal government required such zoning.
“It’s clear now that Mayor Hill was far from being truthful, that he lied to the residents of Toms River when he sent this out,” Rodrick said. “… No such fight has ever taken place. He said he believes there will be more lawsuits as those interested in building places of worship seek permission to build them on plots of less than two acres.
Hill said after the meeting that his letter referred to a dispute in 2019 whether or not the council’s land use committee was considering reducing the area needed for a place of worship in the North Dover section of Toms River.
“We can either listen to Councilor Rodrick and his opinion or listen to the experts,” Councilor Terrance Turnbach said. “Who’s going to pay when we lose, everyone sitting in this audience, everyone hopefully listening online tonight.”
“When you hear from the experts, we are going to lose, 10 times out of 10, in front of 10 different judges, what is the option? Said Council Chairman Kevin Geoghegan. “It’s the best decision for us.”
Merlino noted that places of worship are permitted on 2-acre plots in nearby towns of Brick and Jackson, and that 75% of places of worship in Toms River are located on plots of less than 10 acres. He said the township insurance company had indicated that fines and attorney fees related to an RLUIPA lawsuit were unlikely to be covered.
Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, an expert on RLUIPA, said the Toms River settlement was fair to all parties. Watch Hamilton discuss the settlement in the video above.
“And I think it’s unfortunate that sometimes politics enters this arena,” she said. It’s just a law, no matter how little exciting, and the law says that a jump from 2 to 10 acres all of a sudden in 2017, without any justification that would ever persuade a federal court, was probably going to cost dozens. in Toms River. millions of dollars, ”Hamilton said.
The township is already facing two recent RLUIPA lawsuits.
In February, two Orthodox Jewish congregations sued Toms River and the township zoning board, claiming that the township has “embarked on an orchestrated campaign” to prevent the Orthodox Jewish population from spreading here.
The government’s illegal action, the lawsuits say, include blocking the construction of shuls – or Orthodox Jewish synagogues – by “acquiring property by purchase and eminent domain” in the North Dover area, and “passing regulations. targeted and discriminatory zoning that synagogues. ”
In 2009, the city council changed the zoning in areas of the city with larger lots to block the construction of houses of worship in those places, whereas they were previously allowed. This includes almost all of northern Dover, where a growing number of Orthodox Jewish families have bought homes in recent years.
Then, in 2017, the council increased the area needed to build a place of worship from 2 to 10 acres in areas of the city where they were permitted. Places of worship have also been barred from access to roads classified as “minor collectors,” which typically connect neighborhood streets to larger roads or highways.
Toms River’s consent decree with the Department of Justice was filed on March 10 in the U.S. District Court and settled a lawsuit also filed on that date. The lawsuit alleged that the Toms River zoning code imposed unreasonable limits on where religious assemblies and institutions could be located, significantly obstructed religious exercise, and treated religious assemblies and institutions equally. with non-religious assemblies and institutions.
The zoning change adopted on Tuesday states:
The regulations cancel these changes:
- Houses of worship can be built on plots as small as 2 acres in nine areas of the city, including the north and west areas of Toms River.
- Places of worship are once again a permitted use in the more rural areas of the city.
- Smaller places of worship – from 2 to 2.5 acres – may be located on “minor collector” roads.
- Places of worship become an authorized use in the commercial zones of the township’s highways.
- Places of worship are not allowed on local roads in neighborhoods.
Jean Mikle has covered Toms River and several other towns in Ocean County, and has been writing about local government and politics on the Jersey Shore for nearly 37 years, and is also passionate about the legendary coast music scene. Contact her: @jeanmikle,, [email protected]