TOMS RIVER – Closing stores, new opportunities, and pressure from the state and federal government shaped this year’s top stories.
Huge Cuts To School Aid
The state provides aid to all public school districts, but a new funding formula hit some districts very hard. Toms River schools were able to patch a $2,357,955 hole caused by cuts this year by using surplus and maintenance. However, all attempts to get the state to reconsider the funding formula change have fallen on deaf ears.
The philosophy behind the cuts is that funding should be tied to enrollment. Districts with declining enrollment, such as Toms River, received less aid.
Officials warned that in the future, residents could see a tax increase of $1,200 a year on the average home.
The aid is scheduled to be reduced every year for the next six years. According to district info, the aid for the 2024-25 school year would be $21 million, or one third, less than it currently is. If all of the cuts were added together, it would be a total loss of $70,685,260.
Toms River found itself in a similar predicament last year, but was able to recoup funding that was lost.
Development is a perennial issue in any town, but even more so for the residents of the northern sections of Toms River, where multi-family complexes keep popping up.
This year, Cox Cro Crossing was approved by the Planning Board, even though it was a smaller plan that what was originally proposed. There will be a three-story apartment building and another building with retail on the first floor, and offices above it. Other uses, like a gas station, were removed.
Alternatively, several sections of undeveloped land was scheduled for protection. Parcels were eyed for open space purchases either by the town or by the county. Other land was rezoned to prevent big development.
Toms River officials have been trying to redirect development to the downtown area. At the end of 2017, a grand plan was released that imagined the downtown as a pedestrian-friendly hub for culture and shopping. It would have apartments above shops, allowing for locals to get their shopping needs just down the street. It would also have more parking and a redesigned traffic plan, to make it a destination.
In 2018, some steps were taken in that direction. The Red Carpet Inn, long known for illegal activities, was purchased by the town. The plan is to knock it down and use the real estate for something better. Funding was received to extend Herflicker Boulevard to Highland Parkway, which would open up that area for something more than it is. The Legion Square apartments, within walking distance to High School South, also opened this year. An ordinance was approved that would allow craft breweries and distillers to set up shop in the downtown area.
A few big stores closed up shop this year: Toys R Us and Sears. These were part of company-wide closings across the country.
There are no public plans for the Toys R Us building. Sears will be demolished. In its place will be a group of smaller stores. Some will be attached to the Ocean County Mall; others will be in a “lifestyle center” branching off from it.
One of the biggest stories on the Jersey Shore was about something that didn’t even happen yet.
When Phil Murphy was running for governor, one of his campaign promises was to legalize recreational marijuana. There was no set plan for this, but it sent towns scrambling.
Point Pleasant Beach and Berkeley Township were among the first towns to ban dispensaries that sold recreational marijuana. “We’re in the midst of the worst opioid epidemic,” Mayor Carmen Amato said. Legalizing a drug is “bad public policy.” The county government, Beachwood, and Manchester also followed suit. Jackson Township Council passed a resolution stating they were opposed to legalization.
The borough of South Toms River held an online poll. There were 4 votes not to allow any dispensaries (medicinal or recreational). There were 26 votes to allow them. And there were 5 votes to allow medicinal but not recreational.
Toms River introduced an ordinance to ban it, but ultimately tabled it. They were concerned that any state law would supersede their local one, and wanted to wait until the law was passed.
The towns that created a ban made it a point to say that the ban was only on recreational use, and not marijuana sold for medicinal purposes.
A state Senate vote for recreational marijuana was scheduled for December, but was put off until 2019.
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.
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.
Gun Violence Elsewhere Impacts County
The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14, claimed 17 lives. And while there’s been no shortage of mass shootings, this particular one sparked changes in how school security is handled.
Several school districts made physical improvements to their buildings, such as bullet-resistant windows, security systems, doors and vestibules. They also expanded police presence in schools.
The students coped with it as best as they could. Several schools, like Southern Regional and Central Regional high schools, held walk-outs. Some schools were restricted from leaving the building for security reasons. Donovan Catholic held a prayer service.
“People our age should never have to deal with this,” said Laura Esposito, a Southern student who helped organize the walkout. She noted that the shooting struck very close to home when she heard about it, reminding her that she and her friends at Southern Regional could have just as easily been victims.
Beach Project Continues
In the everlasting quest to replenish beaches, the Army Corps of Engineers finished most of the project this year. The ships dredged soil from the ocean floor and piped it onto Ortley and North beaches.
The project was not just in Toms River. Mantoloking to Seaside Park was also affected.
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.
Todd Frazier Meets The Mets
Hometown hero Todd Frazier was signed by the Mets to a two-year contract.
Locals have followed Frazier’s career since the Toms River East American Little League won the World Series. He excelled at Toms River High School South and Rutgers, before heading to the White Sox and the Yankees.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Routes 37 And 166
The ongoing construction at the intersection of Routes 37 and 166 has been a thorn in the side of locals for more than just 2018. Toms River officials complain about how ugly the construction is, and how the completion date keeps getting moved back. Business owners near that corner are reporting losses every month.
Hopefully, when this story is on next year’s list of biggest stories of 2019, it will be because the project is finished.
– Kimberly Bosco contributed to this story