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Looking to Build a Synagogue in Toms River? You’ll Need 10 Acres

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Opponents of a measure that requires a minimum of 10 acres to build a house of worship in the township say that the township needs to come to a conclusion soon.

“We can’t keep waiting,” said North Dover resident Scott Gartner, an Orthodox Jew whose efforts to bring a new synagogue to town have been stymied by the zoning restrictions. “Our community is growing. We want to do it the right way. The government is forcing us to do it the wrong way,” he said to the Asbury Park Press.

Township Council members want to meet with Gartner and other members of the North Dover community to discuss the 10-acre limit. The issue is that the changes to zoning laws wouldn’t even be discussed.

Gartner wants to change a 2009 measure enacted by the council requiring at least 10 acres of property for any new church, mosque, synagogue or other house of worship in more rural areas of town with larger lot sizes, which included most of North Dover. Watch the video above to learn more about the zoning law.

A revision of the zoning law last year made the 10-acre requirement town-wide.

Gartner said he and other members of the Orthodox Jewish community believe the zoning change was aimed at preventing the construction of Orthodox Jewish shuls (synagogues). He said any lawsuit would argue the restrictive zoning violates the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

RLUIPA, enacted in 2000, prohibits governmental entities from implementing land-use regulations that impose “a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution,” unless the government can demonstrate that the regulations further “a compelling government interest.”

The Toms River Council members who voted on the zoning change say it was supposed to curb development.

“The ordinance has been in effect long before there was any movement into Toms River from Brooklyn or Lakewood,” Councilman Maurice B. “Mo” Hill Jr. said, citing the two locations where many of Toms River’s Orthodox Jews lived previously.

“We don’t want to start abandoning ordinances that have been in effect for almost 10 years,” Hill said. “It’s not like we decided last week that we wanted to do 10 acres. There are other options. They could seek a use variance,” she said.

Councilman Terrance Turnbach said the 10-acre zoning restriction is not intended to discriminate against any religious group.

“My feeling is that the laws really have to be applied equally to everyone,” Turnbach said.

But Council President Brian Kubiel, who is one of several council members who have met with Gartner, said it might be time to revisit the ordinance.

“I would be willing to create a committee to study the issue,” Kubiel said, “that could include council members, residents of North Dover and members of the Orthodox Jewish community.”

Kubiel noted that Toms River is becoming increasingly diverse and said council members are always willing to speak to members of the township’s various communities.

Gartner wanted to move with his wife to Toms River so they could be closer to their kids who live in Lakewood. He’s found conditions uncomfortable though, giving the example that he and his Orthodox Jewish neighbors are being forced to gather to pray in private homes. Orthodox Jews are prohibited by Jewish law from driving cars on the Sabbath, so they must walk to local places to pray.

Gartner said that a shul, which would be built with “normal zoning of two to five acres for a 5,000-square-foot building,” could serve 100 to 200 Orthodox Jewish families and would allow families who live within one to two miles to walk to the building on the Sabbath, according to the Asbury Park Press.

He and other Orthodox Jewish neighbors have retained an attorney and have what they consider a “war chest of $500,000 in community funds,” that will be used to file a federal lawsuit challenging the zoning, if necessary, Gartner said to the Asbury Park Press.

By: Theodore Herschel

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