Southern Ocean Times: Best Stories of 2018

Supporters donned their #CaffreysStrong shirts during the meeting. (Photo by Kimberly Bosco)

A lot has happened since we rang in the new year, making 2018 quite memorable for residents of Southern Ocean County. Let’s take a look back at some of the biggest news of the past year:

Oyster Creek Closure & Sale

One of the biggest news stories of the year was the official shut down of the oldest operating commercial nuclear power facility. Oyster Creek Generating Station closed its doors and turned the reactor offline for the last time on September 17, 2018 after 49 years in service.

Photo courtesy Exelon

The plant began operation on December 23, 1969, gaining its full operating license by July 2, 1991.

Oyster Creek was in the news consistently as it changed and moved up the date of closure from December 31, 2019 to September 17, 2018.

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The plant is currently in the beginning stages of the decommissioning process, which encompasses the removal of fuel from the reactor into a spent fuel pool. According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) original timeline, decommissioning will be complete in about 60 years. The process would allow for the removal of spent fuel from the site, as well as the dismantling and decontamination of the site for future use.

On July 31, Exelon signed a purchase agreement with Holtec International, a Camden-based dry cask storage manufacturer, for the ownership of the nuclear power plant, which could significantly speed up decommissioning.

Under the terms of the purchase agreement, Holtec will take over the decommissioning process, decreasing the decommissioning timeline from Exelon’s estimated 60 years to just 8 years.

Should the sale be approved, Exelon would be transferring the license of Oyster Creek over to Holtec. The NRC is currently reviewing the terms of the sale to Holtec; a decision is expected to be made by May 2019.

Student Walkouts & School Safety

Following the Feb. 14 tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, local students took it upon themselves to advocate for their safety in schools. Southern Regional High School students facilitated a large-scale walkout on Feb. 20, 2018, the one week anniversary of the Parkland shooting.

Southern students were one of many groups of students across the nation to do this.

Former high school seniors Laura Esposito and Kyra Zdep organized the walkout in just two days, which brought out hundreds of fellow students in support of the cause. The students took to the field in front of the 11/12 building to spend 17 minutes honoring the victims of the shooting.

While this particular walkout was organized by students, others were organized with the help of faculty, such Donovan Catholic’s “walkout” in Toms River, which preserved student safety by being held indoors.

Following the shooting and subsequent walkouts, school administrators made moves to strengthen safety measures in schools. For example, Stafford’s Board of Education even brought in a School Safety Specialist to address the safety measures in place and reassure parents that their children would be protected from harm while in district.

Numerous other Ocean County school administrations held special safety meetings in response to the Parkland incident, to assure students, staff, and parents that safety is a major priority.

Caffrey’s Fire

On Sept. 5 a fire took out a beloved Lacey landmark: Caffrey’s Tavern on Route 9. The three-alarm fire destroyed most of the building taking a majority of the structure’s roof with it.

Caffrey’s in Forked River. (Photo courtesy Elle Regan)

Since that fateful day, fans of the restaurant have been calling for restoration of the popular restaurant; some hosting fundraisers for the employees who lost their jobs to the fire, others urging the township to let the owners rebuild.

Despite rallying support from Lacey locals, owners Dan Coleman and Joe DePasquale were originally denied their request to rebuild as-is due to the fact that the building predates updated zoning regulations.

According to the township Zoning Officer’s original decision, as Caffrey’s current building (or what is left of it) stands, it does not match current zoning regulations, and therefore it must comply in order to rebuild. The building needs to be set back further from Route 9 under current regulations.

The building’s remains are still standing strong on the edge of Route 9, not yet fixed or rebuilt. However, in a reversal of fortune, Caffrey’s owners were granted zoning permits to rebuild at the Dec. 12 zoning board meeting.

Owner Dan Coleman expects to start the process as soon as possible.

Lacey Parents vs. BOE

The March 19 Board of Education meeting sparked a months-long battle between board members and Lacey parents. The suspension of two Lacey High School students for a social media post forced parents to ask, “Where does the board draw the line on discipline?”

After posting a photo of firearms meant for a shooting range, the boys received suspension for the post as it showed firearms meant for use by the students. In the wake of tragic events like the Parkland shooting, school officials took the matter very seriously doling out 4-day in-school suspensions.

Following this, outraged parents spoke up to curb the school administration’s disciplinary powers. Parents posed the question: At what point are these safety measures infringing on the civil rights of the students?

Lacey parents Amanda Buron and Frank Horvath made names for themselves out of this incident, literally, becoming student advocates and opponents to the school board members. Buron and Horvath later ran for seats on the school board. Although Buron dropped out very close to the Nov. 6 election, Horvath successfully won a seat on the board alongside Lacey resident Regina Discenza, unseating current board president Robert Klaus and running mate David Silletti.

The suspensions sparked a crusade by certain parents like Buron and Horvath for the students’ First and Second Amendment rights.

The special monument is now at its permanent home in Barnegat. (Photo by Bill Clanton, Jr.)

Barnegat Honors Vietnam Vets

Barnegat gained its very own Vietnam Veteran Memorial on this year’s National Vietnam Veterans Day, courtesy of a very grateful couple.

Thy and Jimmy Cavagnaro, local residents, constructed the Vietnam Veteran Memorial at Gazebo Park and unveiled it on March 29, 2018 with a special ceremony welcoming home all Vietnam veterans.

Thy has a personal connection to these veterans, as a Vietnam refugee that arrived in the US with her family in 1975. The Cavagnaro couple paid for and facilitated the entire event as a thank you to the veterans who helped her family all those years ago.

The monument displays three flags; one for the US, one for South Vietnam, and another for the POW. It reads “Welcome home Vietnam Veterans: In memory and honor of all those who served, died, or remain missing in the Vietnam War.”

2018 Anniversaries

This past year brought with it two anniversaries: the 30th annual Chowderfest and the 10th annual LBI Film Fest.

With a record breaking 13,000 attendees, the Chowderfest marked one of the largest ever. Restaurants from all across the LBI region, and even one group from as far as Ireland (Nancy’s Barn of Ballyliffin, Ireland), presented gallons of red (Manhattan), white (New England), and creative chowders; each with their own personal touch, flavor and story.

The top three winners this year for red, white and creative chowders went to: Lefty’s Tavern once again for the best red (Manhattan) chowder, Howard’s Restaurant for the best white clam chowder, and Blue Water Cafe for the best creative chowder.

2018 brought the biggest crowds in 30 years of Chowderfest. (Photo by William Clanton)

The LBI Film Fest celebrated their 10th anniversary with films covering a host of topics, from challenging issues such as climate change, to behind the scenes stories of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, to a daughter’s quest to find her father on our very own Long Beach Island.

The festival was comprised of six Spotlight films, six Narrative films, six Documentary films, five VR (virtual reality) experiences, nearly 70 short films, 13 Storytellers episodic series, and 16 student films.

Opioid Epidemic Continues

According to Ocean County figures, there were 53 overdose deaths in 2012. This doubled to 112 reported overdose deaths in 2013. That number would almost double again to 216 in 2016, before dropping to 163 in 2017. However, the county is back up to 193 as of Dec. 4.

With a new governor came a new Ocean County Prosecutor. Joseph Coronato’s five-year term was up, and Bradley Billhimer was chosen as his successor. Billhimer pledged to continue Coronato’s Blue HART (Heroin Addiction Recovery Treatment) program, which allows addicts to come to certain police stations and get help without fear of arrest. He also will look to expand drug education in school.

Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley Billhimer addresses the Ocean County Mayors’ Association at the Cove restaurant in Toms River. (Photo by Chris Lundy)

Local officers were part a multi-state drug bust that led to 28 drug arrests, three fugitive warrants issued, and nine illicit drug facilities. More than 90,000 dosage units of heroin, more than 19 lbs. of cocaine, 20 fire arms, 27 mostly high-end vehicles, and $848,481 were seized. The task force worked in Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean, Passaic, and Union counties and the Bronx in New York. Locally, search warrants were executed in Brick, Howell, Jackson, Lakewood and Toms River. One local production facility found on East Connecticut Concourse in Jackson was dismantled.

 Offshore Drilling Opposed

One of the more important stories was more about what people feared would happen, but it ultimately didn’t.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced a Draft Proposed Program that initially included 47 potential lease sales to energy companies in 25 of the 26 planning areas – 19 sales off the coast of Alaska, 7 in the Pacific Region, 12 in the Gulf of Mexico, and 9 in the Atlantic Region.

This would have opened up areas off the Jersey shore to drilling. Local and state politicians expressed their opposition bipartisanly, united with environmental groups. Ultimately, the situation seems to have been averted.

Thieving Attorney Sentenced

Robert Novy used to have a good name in this county. With an office in Manchester, he was known as an elder law expert, advertising his specialties on local media. Doctors and bankers gave him referrals.

People then learned that he had been robbing from clients who were not of sound mind, and who had no close relatives to advocate for them. In court, his prosecutors accused him of being a predator that victimized easy targets. The state’s investigation found about $3 million stolen from at least two dozen victims. Because of his victims’ state of mind and health, the total number of victims and money stolen might never be known.

He was jailed for 10 years. He has to pay $4 million in restitution: $3 million to the known victims, and $1 million must be set aside for any future victims that are found from further investigation.

Robert Novy (Photo courtesy Ocean County Jail)

New Performing Arts Academy

Ground was broken on the campus of Ocean County College for the new Ocean County Vocational Technical School Performing Arts Academy

The new OCVTS Performing Arts Academy will be a 50,000-square-foot building intended to “provide a rigorous education for creatively gifted high school students, (offering) majors in theater, vocal, dance, and audio engineering,” according to their press release. The construction of the building is already underway, and is expected to be completed by December 2019.

The PAA is a four-year public high school, currently located at the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. When the announcement of the new academy was made last year, it came as welcome news. The current location is distant and difficult to get to and from.

The academy will provide students with credits for college. In collaboration with OCC, OCVTS’s early college program will allow high school students to graduate with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree from OCC at the same time. Students will be exiting high school already halfway to a bachelor’s degree, all for a fraction of the tuition cost of a university degree.

In turn, OCC students will be able to use the new building at night.

The state will fund $10.6 million toward the funding of the construction. Ocean County and the Jay and Linda Grunin Foundation will each contribute $8 million. OCC will provide $2 million.

Freeholder Bartlett

John Bartlett, a seated Freeholder, passed away at the end of his term in December. He had spent almost 40 years crafting the finances of the county.

As a history teacher, there was a special place in his heart for children, education, history, and parks and open space. In fact, he was involved in a few of the stories on this list, such as the new school at OCC.

Freeholder John C. Bartlett (Photo courtesy Ocean County)

– Chris Lundy contributed to this story