Are houses of worship a legimitate election concern in Toms River?

TOMS RIVER, NJ – Once again, the matter of houses of worship in Toms River is quickly becoming a key election issue as three Republican tickets prepare to square off against each other.

Toms River Mayor Mo Hill is once again in discussions with leaders of the Orthodox Jewish community to further lessen restrictions on houses of worship in the town despite already meeting the township’s obligations under a recent Department of Justice settlement.

That settlement resulted in the township clearly identifying where houses of worship can be built in Toms River.

Now, Jewish leaders are injecting the issue as a campaign issue. Hill, who has had the support of the Toms River Jewish Community Council is at risk of losing that support if he doesn’t push a new ordinance to help house of worship operators get around New Jersey’s strict CAFRA guidelines.

Leaders have met with Hill to ask the mayor to introduce a new zoning ordinance that will seek to expect specific square footage inside a home to circumvent the CAFRA review process. If Hill refuses, leaders have already made public statements that his opponent, Geri Ambrosio is willing to deliver on that request. Ambrosio has also met with leaders from the TRJCC in recent weeks.

A third candidate, Councilman Daniel Rodrick has a track record of voting against land use changes related to special interest groups and developers. Rodrick said he has not met with Jewish leaders on the matter and does not intend to as he does not know the specifics of the requests being made to Hill and Ambrosio.

Rodrick is being accused of being an ‘anti-semite‘ by Jewish leaders and local Jewish media blogs in Ocean County over his past votes against overdevelopment and rejecting plans to allow houses of worship in quiet residential neighborhoods.

“Taxes are out of control, and high-density, multi-family development continues to reshape our town. As homes are converted into houses of worship, quiet residential neighborhoods are being transformed into busy commercial streets,” Rodrick said. “These changes are having a disastrous impact on taxes, traffic, quality of life, and our schools.”

The matters before Ambrosio and Hill have not been discussed in public. Instead, both candidates have met with Jewish leaders behind closed doors about changing the township’s zoning laws to accommodate larger houses of worship in zones where they are not currently permitted.

Under the plan proposed to Hill and Ambrosio, Jewish leaders seek to have the township exempt certain space in homes and building converted to houses of worship in the future. In that plan, a structure 5,000 square feet or larger would be subjected to a CAFRA approval process by the state of New Jersey.

By exempting non-congregational space in those buildings by township code, larger buildings could circumvent New Jersey’s CAFRA process. For example, if a 5,500 foot home is being sought to be converted into a house of worship, the township could exempt non-congregational spaces such as kitchens, bathrooms, storage areas and private living space to get the home under the 5,000 square foot state requirement.

Rodrick refused to comment on the matter saying he was not informed by Mayor Hill about the request and has seen no formal township correspondence on the matter.

Art Ghallager, Mayor Mo Hill’s public information officer refused to comment publicly on the matter, stating only, “How did you know?” when contacted this week by Shore News Network.

Multiple credible sources close to the Hill Administration and the TRJCC have confirmed Jewish leaders have been in talks with Hill about the measure.

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