Toms River NJ to mediate religious bias lawsuit at egg farm
TOMS RIVER — The township has moved closer to resolving a longstanding religious land use lawsuit, agreeing to mediate a dispute involving a former egg farm on Highway 9.
Mediation between township officials and representatives of developer 1940 Route 9 LLC is expected to begin in April, according to court documents. The company sued Toms River in 2018, accusing the township of using eminent domain to acquire ownership of the egg farm to prevent Orthodox Jews from settling in town.
In 2016, city council approved a $10.3 million bond issue to purchase approximately 50 acres of land on Route 9 between Riverwood Drive and Cox Cro Road. The largest piece of land – about 35 acres – belonged to the Guttman family, who had operated an egg farm there.
The township used eminent domain to repossess the land and ultimately acquired the property for $4.75 million, according to assistant township attorney Anthony Merlino. He said the eminent domain proceeding was initiated by Toms River because of a dispute over the fair market value of the property.
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Lakewood-based 1940 Lakewood Road, LLC had proposed to build about 100 townhouses, plus 80,000 square feet of retail space, on the former poultry farm.
“Route 9 planned to develop and sell townhouses on the property with amenities such as kosher kitchens and multiple bedrooms that would be desirable for Orthodox Jewish families,” the lawsuit states. “With the growing demand for housing in Toms River among the Orthodox Jewish population, Orthodox Jews would likely purchase new housing in the development, especially if they had certain amenities appropriate to their religious faith.”
A 3,600 square foot structure on the Guttman property was to be used for religious purposes, according to the lawsuit. Guttman’s land is located in the former rural area of North Dover, where hundreds of Orthodox Jewish families have moved in recent years.
The lawsuit claims the township did not need the additional free space when Toms River moved to purchase the land. Instead, “the commune’s alleged interest in open spaces ‘is a pretext for discrimination against Orthodox Jews,'” the lawsuit says.
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1940 Route 9 LLC’s lawsuit over the Guttman property is one of three lawsuits filed against Toms River, alleging violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The lawsuit was filed in 2018 in federal court.
The RLUPIA lawsuit claims the township did not need the additional open space when Toms River moved in to purchase the land. Instead, “the township’s alleged interest in open spaces is a pretext for discrimination against Orthodox Jews,” the lawsuit says.
The Religious Land Use Act, passed by Congress in July 2000 and signed into law later that year by President Bill Clinton, prohibits cities from enforcing land use regulations that impose a “substantial burden” on religious exercise, “in the absence of compelling justification” the restriction serves a government interest.
The Guttmans were also sued by 1940 Route 9 LLC, which entered into a deal in 2015 to buy the former egg farm for $5.2 million. The developer claims he should receive the $4.75 million payment for the land, since he was the contractual purchaser of the property when the eminent domain action was initiated.
Ocean County Superior Court Assignment Judge Marlene Lynch Ford ruled against 1940 Route 9 LLC in the state’s case in early 2018, dismissing their attempt to intervene in the estate proceeding. eminent. The developer then appealed the decision to the Appeal Division.
There he was referred to Judge Ford, after the appeals committee asked him to further examine the issues raised by the developer. 1940 Route 9 LLC says it acted in good faith and moved forward with the planning aspects of the development when the township intervened.
Merlino said the state’s lawsuit is still ongoing.
Jean Mikle has covered Toms River and several other towns in Ocean County, and written about local government and politics on the Jersey Shore for nearly 36 years, and is also passionate about the legendary music scene on the coast. Contact her: @jeanmikle, [email protected]