Toms River Township will acquire a 16.6-acre parcel of land adjacent to Silver Bay Elementary School, preserving the land from development while simultaneously helping plug a major hole in the Toms River Regional school district’s budget after record funding cuts from the state stunned officials after being announced earlier this year.
The council voted unanimously Wednesday night to purchase the district-owned wooded tract, technically sited at the address of 100 Silver Bay Road, for $4.4 million. Later that same night, the Board of Education approved the sale with one member dissenting and another required to abstain from voting.
The Silver Bay Road property falls within a residential zone which would allow a developer to build 49 single-family homes there. As it currently stands, the land is undeveloped and completely wooded, though several trails run through the property that are generally used for recreation by nearby residents. Indeed, several residents who gathered at the site cheered Thursday when a Shorebeat reporter told them the property had been approved for preservation. Under the terms of the acquisition, the land will be permanently placed in a conservation easement that prohibits development.
The $4.4 million to purchase the property is already being held within the township’s open space fund and will not have an effect on the local property tax rate. The transfer of money between the township’s open space fund and the school district will help the regional school system overcome a proposed cut of $14.4 million in funding from the state under the controversial “S-2” bill, the result of a deal hatched several years ago between Gov. Phil Murphy and then-Senate President Stephen Sweeney. The state legislature, this month, reduced the cut from $14.4 million to $4.9 million through a bill restoring some funding to beleaguered school districts.
“We continue to work on a fair and equitable school funding formula with Trenton,” said Mayor Maurice “Mo” Hill, who supported the land transfer. “Hopefully they’re hearing the message, but we need to get through this year and next year, and there may be some change.”
Michael Citta, the superintendent of the district, asked the township council to consider the preservation of the land as a last-ditch effort to avoid cutting student services. Otherwise, he said, the sale of district assets would have needed to be considered, starting with the Silverton property. He spoke at a school board meeting held about an hour after the council approved the deal.
“We will be the only district who got cut in S-2 to get our money back because of the cooperation of our stakeholders in putting our kids first,” Citta said. “I cannot thank enough the entire council and the mayor for stepping up to the plate.”
Two dissenting votes were cast by members of the school board by members Anna Polozzo and Melissa Morrison.
“My vote is no, I don’t think we should be selling off our district piecemeal,” said Polozzo.
Morrison cast her ‘no’ vote without an explanation. Board member Ashley Lamb was required to abstain from the vote because her husband, Justin Lamb, serves on the council which approved the sale. Still, she was complimentary toward the district’s staff who put the deal together.
“I feel like we’re pretty much at one year with Mr. Citta as our superintendent, and I am so proud,” said Lamb. “I don’t even know how to thank you for the fact that you are literally wiling to move mountains for these kids, our staff and our schools.”
Council members also celebrated the purchase as a “win-win” that provided the district with much-needed funding while ensuring the large property would not be developed.
“I played in those woods all the time growing up,” said Council President Matthew Lotano. “We ran around, played manhunt. Being able to save it sitting up here is a wonderful experience. Open space is a legacy, it truly is.”