TOMS RIVER – Facing the possibility of a lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice, the township entered into pre-litigation negotiation. This is designed to prevent the federal government from deciding local land use laws in the courts.
The issue revolves around zoning for development. The Attorney General alleges that Toms River’s zoning violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The simplified version of this law is that a town can’t create ordinances to make it difficult for certain people to move into town.
Toms River had already retained attorney and author Marci Hamilton to help navigate this law. She has been speaking on behalf of the township to the federal government.
According to the Justice Department’s letter: “The complaint will allege that the Township’s zoning laws unreasonably limit religious exercise, treat religious assemblies or institutions on less than equal terms with nonreligious assemblies or institutions, and substantially burden religious exercise, which burden does not further a compelling governmental interest and is not the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling interest.”
The goal of the negotiation, according to the federal government, would be to change the town’s ordinances and to train staff on following the law.
Specifically, it notes: “We are willing to discuss the precise nature of revisions to the Township’s zoning ordinance, but they must, at a minimum, involve significant changes that address the religious needs of Orthodox Jews, and other religious groups, who worship in small settings, travel on foot to attend houses of worship because of sincerely held religious beliefs, and have minimal need for parcels with large acreage.”
Township officials said that the Justice Department had been investigating the township’s ordinances since 2018. In 2019, the township put forward some proposals to remedy the situation, and never heard back from the feds.
“By opting for collaboration over confrontation, the Township will be able to ensure that any amendments that might be necessary to satisfy the Township’s obligations under RLUIPA will still further the goals of responsible development, public safety, and quality of life,” Toms River officials said. “Reaching a mutually agreeable and responsible accord with the Justice Department, if possible, is a far more prudent approach than potentially costly and protracted litigation.”
At one time there was a proposal to reduce required land for houses of worship from 10 acres to seven acres in most of town, but two acres in the north Dover section of town. It was never implemented.