The Ocean County Board of Commissioners has awarded a contract for the construction of a new, $78 million court complex in downtown Toms River, with officials estimating it could be complete as soon as 2026.
What began as a proposal for a $50 million upgrade to the complex in 2019 evolved into a $70 million project in 2022 before ballooning another $8 million by the time the lowest qualified bidder, Ernest Bock & Sons, submitted its proposal. The project has proven controversial at times, with opponents taking board members to task for what they see as lavish spending on additional amenities and capabilities that may not be required, however those in favor of the project have pitched the major re-make of the complex as a money-saver that will allow the county to shed expensive leases and bring all of its court services together.
Additionally, judges have described incidents of stalking and harassment as they transit from one building to another – which could have major implications on pending cases as well as judicial safety – plus a more than a dozen access points which require protection from county sheriff’s officers under the current layout.
In a consulting project funded in 2019, experts found that the county is faced with annual lease agreements in the hundreds of thousands of dollars as well as the upkeep and maintenance of county-owned buildings that are separate from the courthouse. For example, there are currently 13 different facilities scattered around the downtown area that serve judicial functions. Multiple family courtrooms, drug court, probation services and even a criminal courtroom are located off-premises.
Ultimately, the commissioners were swayed by the calls from staff to build a new annex that would expand the justice complex – and simultaneously contract the number of buildings and travel distances between offices.
“Our overall goal is to create a building that will function properly,” said Ocean County Commissioner John P. Kelly, who serves as liaison to state court functions in Ocean County. “We are building what we need. We are not building too much.”
Work on the project could begin in the spring and completion is estimated for 2026, Kelly said.
According to county officials, the annex design meets the county’s overall goals to construct a building that is “functional, cost effective and right-sized.” The new building will be four stories and 125,000 square feet. The project design includes a single secure entrance and screening location and separated circulation for the public, judges and prisoners.
“This gives us the opportunity to solve one of our biggest problems and that is the movement of people in this facility,” Kelly said. “The new design gives us one single controlled location to move the public in and out of the building. This enhances security and safety for everyone using the facility.”
When the project was first proposed in 2019, then-Assignment Judge Marlene Lynch Ford described the issues affecting the complex.
“In 1979, I became a lawyer down here and walked into the court house for the first time,” she said, explaining that while the physical facilities resemble the look they had back then, the services under the court system’s purview have increased. “The legislature has asked the judiciary to take on a lot more responsibilities, which has resulted in an explosion in areas that didn’t exist when I started here.”
The nagging security issues compounded the problem.
“I’ve had judges in some of these out-buildings accosted by angry litigants on their way out, and what we’re really concerned about is the safety of the people of Ocean County who we service,” said Ford, who retired in Feb. 2023.
The public will access the building by using the overhead walkway across Hooper Avenue that is attached to the Ocean County Parking Garage. The walkway will be undergoing extensive renovations as part of the work, officials said. In addition, the new building is designed to consolidate criminal courtrooms and probation while providing space for more efficient administration and court services. The project includes eight new courtrooms, including two large courtrooms, and is expected to serve the needs of the county through 2035.
“Ocean County continues to grow in population,” Kelly said. “Ocean County government provides services and programs to meet that growth. This justice complex annex will help us meet the growth in our judicial system.”
The newly proposed annex, the basis of the expansion effort, which will be built to the northeast of the current courthouse, closer to the High School South property, will include:
- 123,500 square feet of space.
- 15,800 square feet of secure parking.
- 3,700 square feet for a secured transport bridge.
- 1,300 square feet for the pedestrian bridge.
The board approved the project unanimously, with the exception of Commissioner Frank Sadeghi, who abstained from voting on the contract, providing the explanation that he had been on the board only since Jan. 3 and continues to review the project while the other commissioners have been working on it for a number of years.
The Board of Commissioners approved a $92 million funding ordinance in August 2023 for the project. The project architect is Clarke, Caton, Hintz of Trenton. Ocean County received five bids on the project with the highest bidder totaling $97,857,000.
“This project has been discussed and planned for quite some time. It will be a welcome upgrade to our court system,” said Director of the Ocean County Board of Commissioners Barbara Jo Crea. “I commend Commissioner Kelly and the professional staff for taking their time in planning the annex and paying close attention to the details that will help us provide a much needed and improved facility.”