TOMS RIVER, NJ – In 2018 North Dover resident Scott Gartner came to Toms River town hall with a threat to the Toms River Township Council and then Mayor Thomas Kelaher, “Change the 10 acre zoning for houses of worship or I will sue you!”
“We can’t keep waiting,” said North Dover resident Scott Gartner, an Orthodox Jew, according to an article in the Asbury Park Press. “Our community is growing. We want to do it the right way. The government is forcing us to do it the wrong way.”
Gartner threatned to use a $500,000 community war chest against the township and said those funds would be used against Toms River to file a federal lawsuit if he did not get his way. The township balked at Gartner’s threat and throughout Mayor Kelaher’s remaining term, the ordinance did not change.
Enter Maurice “Mo” Hill, a councilman during Kelaher’s tenure as Mayor and a close friend and neighbor of Gartner. In 2019, Hill ran for mayor and Gartner diverted his war chest into Hill’s campaign account, nearly $10,000 in total. In return, Hill promised Gartner, that he would work behind the scenes to change the town’s ten acre zoning to two. That plan was leaked to Shore News Network in September of 2019 by multiple township officials who were gravely concerned about the change. Mo Hill, who was the chairman of the Land Use Committee proposed an ordinance to the Toms River council, but after the plan was exposed, Council President George Wittman pulled the resolution from the township’s agenda and the vote never happened.
Hill proclaimed that the ordinance will be changed, in favor of Gartner’s threats and requests and that he would fulfill his campaign promise to Gartner, one of Hill’s largest financial donors during his mayoral election.
On Tuesday, Hill finally found a way to push the matter forward, this time, blaming the Department of Justice. It would seem as if Gartner, after waiting nearly one year for Hill to come through sought the assistance of the U.S. Department of Justice. Hill claims the township recieved a threat from the DOJ to change the ordinance and that’s the only reason why now he wants to proceed to allow houses of worship on two acre lots in Toms River.
The town will now move forward to negotiate with the Department of Justice after a 6-1 vote in favor of changing the ordinance took place. Councilwomen Maria Maruca and Laurie Hauryk voted yes. Councilman Terrance Turnbach, Kevin Geoghegan, Josh Kopp and Matt Lotano also voted yes. Councilman Daniel Rodrick was the lone vote against Hill’s request and voted no.
Toms River has hired attorney Marci Hamilton to negotiate a settlement with the Department of Justice to pave the way to lowering the minimum. Residents in town have expressed concern that if the township lowers the acreage to two acres, Most homes in North Dover would qualify to be converted into houses of worship in residential neighborhoods. Currently, those homes act as schuls for the Orthodox Jewish community.