Toms River officials pass two-acre zoning ordinance for houses of worship

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TOMS RIVER, NJ – When Toms River Mayor Maurice Hill was candidate Maurice Hill, he promised the residents of Toms River that he would fight the Department of Justice to the end to preserve the town’s 10-acre zoning minimum for houses of worship.

Now, Mayor Maurice “Mo” Hill and the entire Toms River Township council, sans Dan Rodrick have retreated from the Department of Justice out of fear of a lawsuit that could end up costing the township as much as $10,000,000, according to Hill appointed attorney Anthony Merlino.

On Tuesday, the township council voted to adopt Hill’s proposed ordinance to reduce that minimum acreage to two acres at the township council meeting hosted this week.

Once again absent from the important meeting once again was township lead attorney Gregory McGuckin, busy in neighboring Jackson Township working hard on settling religious lawsuits there.

Instead, McGuckin underling Anthony Merlino gave a presentation to the township designed to defend Hill and the council’s position on the new two-acre zoning ordinance.

Merlino said that in 2017 when Hill was then a councilman, the township arbitrarily increased the acreage to 10-acres from a previous limit of two to block Jewish residents from prayer. Last year, the Department of Justice had notified the township that they were in violation of religious land-use laws since the timing of the ordinance change coincided with the influx of Orthodox Jewish residents moving to the community.

Back then, Hill and his counterparts were against the expansion. At one point, former Toms River Mayor and then Hill ally Tom Kelaher called the migration into town by Orthodox Jews “An Invasion”. Hill agreed, which is why in 2017, he voted to increase the zoning to 10 acres.

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Now, four years later and a few million dollars in legal fees, Hill reversed course. The decision comes after Hill announced his decision to run for mayor in 2019 when he pledged secretly and behind closed doors that he would undo the 10-acre zoning ordinance. In public, Hill denied that was his plan, but behind the scenes, he worked with the Toms River Jewish Community Council and the Department of Justice to use the DOJ as the reason for the zoning change.

Shore News Network reported in 2019 that Hill was working behind the scenes to change it and released an internal township document outlining Hill’s desire to work with township Democrats on a new ordinance. Hill denied this but was called a “liar” by Democrat Laurie Huryk who said it was Hill’s idea to change the ordinance during his 2019 mayoral election campaign where he was openly courting the Orthodox Jewish bloc vote.

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Merlino, Hill’s appointed lawyer gave a Powerpoint presentation with a series of slides attempting to “debunk” what he called false information regarding the zoning change, saying it was driven by the Department of Justice in 2020 and not Mo Hill a year prior despite countless articles on the topic.

Mo Hill on the take reporter Karen Wall at Toms River Patch ran interference for Hill, misleading residents saying Hill was “shocked” when he found out that the ordinance he requested to be drafted in 2019 was leaked by Shore News Network. Wall and the Patch blog, it was later learned received tens of thousands of dollars in advertising dollars from Hill’s political campaign.

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Hill and his Democrat partners in crime were more shocked that Shore News Network released his secret agenda document that was later placed by Hill, who claims he never saw it, on the township agenda calendar.

The Asbury Park Press reported that Huryk said Hill lied when he claimed he had no prior knowledge of the ordinance.

Brick Shorebeat reported Hill, who pushed for the ordinance behind closed doors, vowed to fight the ordinance.

“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,” Brick Shorebeat reported. “I don’t know what the lawyers are thinking, but I am opposed to these changes as a councilman and I will oppose them as mayor if I am elected.”

Then he was elected…and he worked overtime behind the scenes to hash out a plan that would allow himself the cover of a Department of Justice lawsuit threat to save face in front of the resident of Toms River, but deliver his campaign promise to the Orthodox Jewish bloc vote at the same time.

The plan almost worked if it wasn’t for that meddling kid Dan Rodrick who became a whistleblower, exposing Hill’s plan at township meetings both public and private during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2021. In the end, Hill approached the Department of Justice to ask for a review of the 10-acre-zoning ordinance to which the DOJ responded, the town was in violation, sparking action by the DOJ against the township.

Rodrick at one meeting said had Mo Hill not made the first contact with the DOJ, the agency would never have had an interest in the 10-acre-zoning law.

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It’s like calling the IRS and saying, “Hey can you do me a favor, can you take a second or third look at my taxes just to make sure everything is ok?”

Something Hill lawyer McGuckin probably won’t be doing anytime soon as he is working off multiple IRS liens for non-payment of federal taxes from a decade ago.

Now, the saga of Toms River’s two-acre zoning ordinance is over, but that’s not the last the township will be hearing over the ordinance as the Toms River Jewish Community Council has publicly stated they do not support the ordinance and want it lowered even more.

Last night, Merlino stated that no houses of worship or places of assembly can operate in residential neighborhoods or on land with less than two acres available, but dozens of such houses of worship exist. Neither Merlino, Hill nor the township council gave any color on what will happen to existing houses of worship operating in residential neighborhoods.

According to the testimony of Hill’s RLUIPPA lawyer Marci Hamilton, probably nothing as the township is now in the crosshairs of the Department of Justice’s civil rights and religious land use departments.

In the end, Scott Gartner, an Orthodox Jewish resident who sparked the entire ordeal when he stood before the township council in 2018 claiming he had a $250,000 legal warchest and threatened to sue the township if they did not change the ordinance, didn’t have to spend that money. Instead, Gartner donated thousands of dollars to Hill election campaign, according to documents on file with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.