The settlement of litigation between a Christian church that ran afoul of Brick’s zoning regulations and the township culminated in a six-figure settlement, and set off a war of words between Mayor John Ducey and former township councilman Michael Thulen this week.
Ducey, a Democrat, fired the first shot at a council meeting Tuesday against Thulen, a Republican. He partially blamed comments he claimed were made by Thulen for why the township was required to settle the lawsuit filed by the New Beginnings Christian Church against the township for $237,000. The township’s insurance carrier will cover the cost of the settlement.
The litigation began after the township’s Board of Adjustment – at the time under Republican control – denied the church variances required to operate a house of worship, teen center and thrift shop at the site. Residents had claimed at meetings that the church caused extreme traffic issues in their neighborhood and the buildings the church were seeking to occupy were too small to support the congregation and the programs the church sponsored.
After the board denied the variances, the church filed a lawsuit in state superior court. A judge remanded the matter back to the Board of Adjustment which, in turn, upheld its denial. New Beginnings then filed a federal lawsuit claiming its constitutional rights had been violated, which led to the pending settlement. The church’s attorney utilized RLUIPA legislation in the lawsuit, which, in practice, often tips the scales against municipal zoning boards denying religious organizations permits or other approvals.
“If the denial was done correctly, it would have stood and it would have moved on,” said Ducey. “Instead, the board, and a former councilman, showed open hostility toward a religious institution.”
Ducey, who did not refer to Thulen by name, said comments made at the zoning board hearings constituted “outrageous behavior we now have to pay for.”
The mayor accused the former councilman of making statements to the effect that the zoning board’s goal was to make the church spend as much money as possible, saying at one point the township would “bury you” and referencing pedophilia on the part of church members. Ducey also said people held up signs at meetings.
“I don’t remember saying any of the things he said that I said,” Thulen said Wednesday. “The reason I fought this from the very beginning is because this is a Board of Adjustment scenario where there is an overuse of the property. It always has been.”
Moreover, Thulen said, the church has violated township zoning rules for years, and went against a township ordinance that requires property owners to remove violations before proposing variance relief to the board.
“They continued to use the property unlawfully,” Thulen said. “These guys have broken the law all the way down the road. If anyone cost the town money, it was the church, because they kept breaking the law and hiring attorneys.”
“I find it very interesting that the folks over in Toms River have now picked the same attorney to go after that town,” Thulen said, referring to the an application made by an Orthodox Jewish Chabad leader to use his residential property as a house of worship.
“It was clear that there was bias involved,” said Ducey, who also blamed the administration of former mayor Stephen C. Acropolis for his appointments to the planning board and the attorney that represented the board.
Thulen said the settlement matter was politicized. Current members of the Board of Adjustment said they had to approve the settlement and vote in favor of granting the church’s variances earlier this month because they were “told to vote that way.”
“They apologized to me and said, ‘we had to do this,'” Thulen said. “They made a deal in a back room without information from the public.”
“The previous administration is the gift that keeps on giving,” Ducey said.
A hearing earlier this month where the Board of Adjustment approved a modified version of the original variance application drew numerous residents of nearby neighborhoods who, again, voiced their disapproval with the manner in which the church operates. The board, however, unanimously approved the settlement and variance relief.