Plane Crashes, Trump and MTV Attracted Attention in 2017

Top 20 Southern Ocean County News Stories of 2017, Part I
By RICK MELLERUP | Jan 10, 2018
File Photo by: Ryan Morrill On May 16, the Texas pilot of a single-engine propeller plane stopped at Eagles Nest to refuel. Shortly after taking off, he ran into trouble and attempted to return to the airport. He didn’t make it, missing the runway and crashing into trees located between 106 and 108 Laurel Lane. The pilot survived without serious injury

2017 was, to say the least, a contentious year in both the United States as a whole and in Southern Ocean County. Make that super contentious!

Therefore it wasn’t difficult to find many qualifiers for the Top 20 news stories of 2017 as reported in The SandPaper. They will, as usual, be broken into two groups – 20 through 11 and 10 to 1. Still, this writer will have to self-edit for relative shortness as he never has before because some of the issues were so complicated, and sparked so much debate and even anger, that they could fill a special edition.

So, in the interest of brevity, let’s get going. A drum roll, please …

No. 20: Southern Ocean County avoids disastrous weather. The U.S. suffered many weather-caused disasters in 2017. There were the almost back-to-back-to-back monster hurricanes – Harvey, which submerged much of Texas, including Houston; Irma, the first Category 5 hurricane of the season, which devastated parts of the Caribbean and the Florida Keys; and Maria, which left Puerto Rico broken and tattered. The 2017 Atlantic Basic hurricane season was a brutal one, with 17 named storms and 10 hurricanes, six of which were Category 3 or above. Estimates of $296.23 billion in damage made it the costliest tropical cyclone season on record.

But Southern Ocean County didn’t get touched – in fact, wasn’t even seriously threatened. The only effect hurricanes had on the area was waves churned up by hurricanes far offshore, thrilling surfers but ticking off swimmers, who were warned away from the water.

That’s not to say it was a perfect year weather-wise in the area. June and the first half of July were dry, dry enough to have New Jersey State Climatologist David Robinson worried that a drought alert might have to be issued. But a drenching rain on July 23 and 24 took care of that. Then, however, it rained at least part of every weekend through Labor Day, resulting, LBI municipal officials said, in a drop-off in beach badge sales.

Still, better than a hurricane!

As for winter weather, there was what Robinson described as a “modest” snowstorm on Jan. 7, dumping between 5 to 9 inches on Southern Ocean County. But that was pretty much it for the winter of 2016-17. A nor’easter hit LBI later in January, which Ship Bottom Mayor William Huelsenbeck described as possibly “the fifth and sixth worst I’ve ever seen,” but although it was a hard puncher, it was short-lived. It created beach erosion, but what winter doesn’t bring beach erosion to the Island?

On the other hand, the winter of 2017-18 started off like a bear, with three snowstorms measuring about 3 inches each hitting the area before a fourth dumped between 9 and a dozen inches on the area. As for the cold, did it ever climb above 32 degrees between Christmas and Jan. 8?

If the severe winter continues for the rest of the season, expect weather to be much higher on The SandPaper’s Top 20 list next year.

No. 19: Trump! Need I say more? Past presidents have drawn the ire or support of SandPaper columnists and letter-writers, but not like the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. There have been so many letters and columns about The Donald that a couple of people have complained, saying The SandPaper’s editorial pages should concentrate more on local issues (although, as you will see later in this story, there were plenty of letters and columns about those as well). But what can you say? President Trump has dominated the news, and people either love him or hate him with hardly a middle ground. Indeed, reaction to Trump has been thoroughly mixed in The SandPaper, just as it is around the country, with about 50 percent of columnists and letter writers supporting him and about 50 percent damning him. Expect commentary on Trump to continue in 2018, perhaps even picking up speed if something big breaks in Korea or the Robert Mueller investigation.

No. 18: Cops Cleared. It was a good year for police officers in Southern Ocean County. In February, a state grand jury decided not to file any criminal charges against a member of the Ocean County Regional SWAT Team regarding the death of Patrick Fennell, 57, of Little Egg Harbor Township. Fennell, a retired New York City police detective, was armed with a revolver when he was shot to death in a wooded area behind his house on Sycamore shortly after 10:30 p.m. on July 16, 2016. The officer responsible for the fatal shot, identified only as “Officer 1,” had fired eight shots from a rifle after Fennell had pointed a .22-caliber at officers. The law in New Jersey is that an officer may use deadly force if it is immediately necessary to protect the officer or another person from imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm.

An autopsy revealed the deceased had a blood alcohol concentration between 0.11 and 0.12 percent at the time. Fennell had first been reported to police by his wife, who called 911 at 6:52 p.m. to report that he was drunk and had fired shots in their basement before he fled their home.

In March, the state attorney general and the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office cleared three unnamed Little Egg Harbor police officers of any blame for the Nov. 17, 2015 shooting of Little Egg Harbor’s Francis Hartnett. Police had been alerted by Hartnett’s ex-wife, who told them that he had called her and said he had slit his wrists. When officers checked out his residence, they found him armed with a knife. He charged the officers, they shot – he was hit by 13 bullets – and he died. Hartnett had a history of suicide attempts. “A police shooting is the last thing that anybody wants,” Little Egg Harbor Police Chief Richard Buzby told The SandPaper; “unfortunately, occasionally, that’s what’s required to protect the community.”

In December, the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office dropped a four-count indictment of suspended Tuckerton Police Cpl. Justin Cherry related to a January 2014 incident. Cherry and another officer had been called to a Tuckerton residence to remove Barnegat resident Wendy Tucker, then 57. The officers discovered her license was suspended and warned her not to drive. But soon after, Cherry observed her driving and followed her to Barnegat, where two of that township’s officers attempted to put her under arrest. Cherry’s dog, Gunner, was accused of biting the woman while she was on the ground, and Cherry was charged because of the incident. he still isn’t totally in the clear because the prosecutor’s office is holding out the possibility of recharging him with one count of misconduct. Tucker pleaded guilty to eluding police and was sentenced to 180 days in jail with all but five days suspended. She has a civil lawsuit pending against Cherry, Tuckerton borough and Barnegat Township.

All police/civilian confrontations don’t end as badly. On July 26, Barnegat police were called to a Cape Cod Avenue address to respond to a domestic disturbance. A 48-year-old unidentified male was alone in the residence when police arrived. But he refused officer commands to exit his residence, locked himself in, and threatened to exit with a firearm. After a six-hour standoff, the man finally surrendered and was taken into custody without incident. Three handguns, a shotgun, a carbine, “numerous edged weapons” and approximately 3,000 rounds of ammunition were removed from the residence. The man was charged with obstructing the administration of law and taken to the Southern Ocean Medical Center for observation. Barnegat officers were assisted by the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, the Ocean County Regional SWAT Team, the Ocean County Sheriff’s Department, the Stafford Township Police Department, the Barnegat Township First Aid Squad and MONOC.

No. 17: They that go down to the sea in ships. You don’t have to go out to the deep ocean to be at risk at sea. Indeed, you don’t even have to be at sea – a bay will do.

On Jan. 12, a bayman, from a generation of baymen, called his family to say he’d run aground in the middle of Tuckerton Bay. The next day Tuckerton police, the U.S. Coast Guard and members of the Tuckerton, West Tuckerton and Mystic Island fire companies launched a search for the clammer, Chris Hugg, who hadn’t returned. A search, joined by the New Jersey State Police, lasted several days to no avail. On April 28, Hugg’s body was finally found. The 45-year-old Tuckerton resident’s body was detected in the exact area where his boat had been discovered way back on Jan. 13. The cause of Hugg’s death was listed as accidental drowning.

On May 14 it became obvious that working around water is truly dangerous, no matter how deep or far away from shore that water is. The body of a Barnegat Light scalloper, Capt. Pete Benya, 59, was discovered in Saquatucket Harbor, Mass. “Pete was making a few trips out of Harwich, Mass., and apparently fell overboard while at the dock,” said representatives from Lighthouse Marina, his home port in Barnegat Light. “He will be sorely missed.”

The fact is that you don’t even have to be a fisherman to forever join King Neptune. In October, Little Egg Harbor resident Neil Schwoyer went out to check on work being done on his lagoon deck. He decided to do a little bit of work on the deck, going out to the floating dock where his contractor kept his equipment. He slipped and fell into the lagoon.

Now, that situation could be deadly enough for anybody. But Schwoyer was 84 years old and had a pacemaker, skin cancer, hip replacements, hearing loss and a missing lung due to lung cancer five years previously.

A neighbor heard Schwoyer calling for help. “Our neighbor (Victor Apairo) said he heard someone say, ‘Help,’ and then a few minutes later hear the voice say ‘Help’ again, so he came out of his rec room and saw my husband in the water,” said Shirley Schwoyer, Neil’s wife of 61 years. “He said if he went in his car and drove around to our house, it would be too late, so he jumped into the lagoon and swam over to my husband.

“Neil had no strength left, but somehow our neighbor was able to get a rope to him to hang onto until he was able to bring the (boat) ladder around to him. His clothes were stuck to barnacles under the dock, but he finally got him freed.”

No. 16: Don’t hold your breath waiting for Mill Creek Pavilion. Superstorm Sandy destroyed Stafford Township’s Mill Creek Community Center. There is absolutely no doubt about that.

Many members of the Beach Haven West neighborhood wanted that community center replaced. But over the years since Sandy, Stafford’s governing body – Mayor John Spodofora and his council – decided that the old town hall on East Bay Ave. would be a better location for a community center in the eastern half of the township. It was, they reasoned, on the edge of a flood zone, not smack in the middle of it, like Mill Creek. It “suffered no flooding during Sandy,” said Spodofora of the East Bay location at a January council meeting.

Some BHW residents were not happy with the decision. They didn’t necessarily want a total replacement of their old community center; a scaled-down version  would do. But Spodofora and Co. said insurance or FEMA wouldn’t pay for it and unanimously agreed there was no way they would put the taxpayers of the township on the hook for over $1.5 million to build an unnecessary replacement for the Beach Haven West facility. After all, it isn’t exactly a long drive to get to East Bay Ave. for the neighborhood’s residents. (As of last February, the Mill Creek Pavilion project was put on hold.)

Residents were not impressed with the governing body’s arguments. “Beach Haven West deserves it,” said neighborhood resident Robert McManus. “We had it; we don’t need to lose it.” “We pay most of the taxes here,” added McManus, a claim Council President Dave Taylor quickly shot down, saying Beach Haven West’s share of the town’s total property tax income is just 23 percent. “You don’t pay all the taxes in the town,” said Taylor.

What about the $250,000 actor Alec Baldwin donated to the replacement of the community center? Mr. Baldwin, said Spodofora, contacted the governor’s office within days of the storm asking how he could help communities damaged by Sandy. Stafford Township said a contribution to replace the lost community center would be appreciated. But, said the mayor, the governing body didn’t say it would be rebuilt on its exact same spot.

No. 15: Battle over health care in Manahawkin. The Southern Ocean Medical Center, still known as SOCH, the Southern Ocean County Hospital, to many area residents, built up its size and scope over the course of decades, growing from a small community hospital to a rather comprehensive center, made even stronger by merging with Meridian Health, now Hackensack Meridian Health. But suddenly it faces strong competition in the form of another medical group, AtlantiCare, part of the Geisinger Health System. The latter opened up its Manahawkin Health Park on June 28. It isn’t a hospital, but it is a 60,000-square-foot facility occupying the site of a former Pathmark supermarket and is state-of-the-art. As a wave of healthcare mergers sweeps the country, Southern Ocean County will be right in the middle of the battle, caught between HMH, based in the northern part of New Jersey, and AC, based in the southern part. The question over the years will be this – is competition good for the health consumers in these parts, or will the two groups weaken each other in what will surely prove to be a costly and long war for supremacy?

No. 14: Nurses reach agreement with SOMC. AtlantiCare wasn’t the only challenge SOMC faced this summer. The hospital, along with another Hackensack Meridian Health facility, the Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune, started negotiating with the Health Professionals and Allied Employees Locals 5138 (SOMC) and 5058 (JSUMC), representing some 1,500 nurses, on June 21. The negotiations went down to the wire.

On July 24, it was announced that the nurses had given HMH 10 days’ warning of a strike or “another form of concerted activity.” Despite the addition of a federal mediator at the bargaining table, a deal hadn’t been reached by the July 31 deadline.

That’s just what the two shore hospitals would need, a nurses strike during their busiest time of the year. Cooler heads prevailed and an agreement was reached on Aug. 1, one that gave nurses wage increases of 2.5 percent and maintained health insurance coverage with no premium increases.

“These negotiations were difficult and challenging for our nursing staff,” said Sally Fessler, president of HPAE Local 5138 at SOMC. “Our employer initially proposed to undo parts of our contract that have been long established and have protected nurses’ rights in our hospitals. As nurses, we could not walk away from these negotiations without maintaining our rights and our benefits, so we can continue to be advocates for our patients and our profession.”

No. 13: Will your kids be able to graduate? The issue has gotten very little press coverage, but The SandPaper was all over the story thanks to the attention given it at the Pinelands Regional School District. The New Jersey State Board of Education declared that starting in 2021, the state’s high school students must pass two PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) tests to graduate – 10th-grade English and Algebra I. The problem is that in 2016 just 44 percent of Garden State students passed the former while only 41 percent managed to pass the latter.

Incoming Gov. Phil Murphy said while campaigning that he would do away with the requirement. But politicians don’t always keep their promises.

The SandPaper will continue to keep a watchful eye on this issue, because it could become a huge one in coming years.

No. 12: Two planes crash at Eagleswood airport. “ Does one of your kids have to die?” Eagleswood resident Michelle Paccione asked Mayor Michael Pasternak and Committeewoman Debra Rivas at an Eagleswood Township meeting in May. “Do someone else’s kids have to die before you take it seriously?”

“It” was the Eagles Nest Airport. On May 16, the Texas pilot of a single-engine propeller plane stopped at Eagles Nest to refuel. Shortly after taking off, he ran into trouble and attempted to return to the airport. He didn’t make it, missing the runway and crashing into trees located between 106 and 108 Laurel Lane. The pilot survived without serious injury, but the crash enflamed the situation in Eagleswood, where residents living near the airport have fought against it for 10 years after Peter Weidhorn purchased the once nearly defunct airstrip and started making improvements, such as a runway expansion, lights for night departures and landings, fuel tanks, hangars and a parachuting drop zone.

The airport had its defenders, such as North Street resident Susan Horner, who said plane crashes are not limited to the vicinities of airports but can happen anywhere. Still, the situation was not helped when another crash occurred less than a month later.

This time the culprit was a Cessna 206 Stationair belonging to Skydive East Coast. The pilot had been flying the plane after routine maintenance that required several break-in hours. At around 11 p.m. he attempted to make a landing but didn’t have his approach quite right. So he went back up and did a “go-around” to try to get it right. The engine, for reasons unknown, cut out, and the Cessna crashed in the woods near the airport. Amazingly, considering the plane was totaled, the pilot escaped without a scratch.

So far opponents of the airport have not convinced the township’s governing body the airport has to go.

No. 11: MTV on LBI! In early June, The SandPaper discovered that MTV would be reviving its hit show from the 1990s, “MTV Beach House.” The SandPaper also discovered it would be doing so on LBI, in Long Beach Township to be exact.

The show itself would be taped at a secluded Loveladies location. But the 2017 MTV summer season would kick off on June 8 with a first-ever “MTV Beach House Festival,” a concert featuring MisterWives and KYLE. The festival/concert/Mountain Dew Spiked Lemonade commercial taping would be held at Long Beach Township’s Bayview Park in Brant Beach.

Was the township’s governing body ever going to tell the public about the show? Would folks be happy with the park being closed to the public for three days? Why couldn’t local fans attend the concert, which the township called “a private event”? Was the $5,000 MTV paid for the park’s use enough? Most of all, would the public like to see LBI associated with MTV, the same channel that gave us “Jersey Shore,” the infamous show that made Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi and Michael “The Situation” Sorrentino stars and the Jersey Shore a laughingstock?

In the end the concert/show shooting caused no problems. The “crowd” bused in by MTV was small; security was tight. Township officials estimated the shoot brought in $400,000 to Island businesses such as hotels and restaurants (a huge MTV crew was on the Island for a week).

But the public reaction to MTV’s visit was loud and mostly negative, with The SandPaper estimating comments on its Facebook page and other social media sites running 7-to-1 against. After “Jersey Shore,” apparently the last thing LBI lovers wanted the Island associated with was MTV.

By the way, MTV apparently has a thing for Southern Ocean County. Later in the year the cast of “Jersey Shore” briefly reassembled at – of all places – the Barnegat Burger King!

MTV’s appearance on LBI was controversial. But if you want real controversy, check out The SandPaper next week when the Top 10 News Stories of 2017 will be revealed. Trust us, you will not be disappointed.

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