Pot, Kites, Threats and Measles All Made Headlines in 2018

And That’s Just the First Half of the Top 20 SandPaper News Stories of 2018
By RICK MELLERUP | Jan 09, 2019
File Photo by Ryan Morrill

It may seem to many that Southern Ocean County, especially Long Beach Island, is pretty quiet during the winter. But if you followed the pages of The SandPaper, you know 2018 was a busy year in these parts – to borrow a phrase from Carole King and James Taylor – winter, spring, summer or fall.

Luckily there weren’t any disasters such as hurricanes or big forest fires. But there was plenty of weather-related news, such as snow storms and flooding. There was also a tractor-trailer’s worth of man-made tempests such as brutal election fights, hot debates over development and bitter labor battles.

So, in the interest of brevity, or at least as close to brevity as an overview of an entire year of news can get, let’s get started with this year’s list of the Top 20 news stories of 2018 in Southern Ocean County as recorded in the pages of this publication.

No. 20: Crime and Punishment. I’ve always enjoyed writing stories about “dumb criminals,” folks who do things like leading cops on a high-speed chase and then turning into a one-way street adjacent to a police station, or leaving their wallet with ID at the scene of a burglary. Well, the guy who allegedly robbed a Chase Bank in Manahawkin on Jan. 18 fits the mold because he attempted the same trick in the Wells Fargo Bank in the Stafford Square Plaza on Jan. 26. He wore the same gray hooded sweatshirt and black aviator sunglasses (although he wasn’t sucking on a lollipop as he had the first time), so police could clearly see when reviewing surveillance footage that they were dealing with the same guy. Anyway, he didn’t get any money in his Jan. 26 attempted heist because bank employees insisted he remove his hood and sunglasses, causing him to flee.

Surveillance cameras also caught the suspect leaving the scene in a Jeep Grand Cherokee. Stafford Township Police Det. Drew Smith and Det. Sgt. David Johnson, assisted by the Galloway Township Police Department, the New York City Police Department and the New York and New Jersey offices of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, were able to track down the suspect, Sergey Demindenko, 38, and his getaway driver, James Boccanfuso, 41, to New York City, where they placed the men under arrest.

The pair had allegedly robbed six banks, traveling between the Big Apple and Atlantic City. But picking the same town twice was surely instrumental to their downfall. You’ve heard the phrase “you can’t cure stupid”? The same holds true for dumb criminals.

Stafford police were kept busy all winter and early spring. On March 9 they busted a driver and two passengers after a traffic stop led to the discovery of heroin and other “controlled dangerous substance” charges. Come the afternoon of March 14, they arrested four subjects who were trying to make purchases at a Dunkin Donuts using counterfeit $100 bills. As if purchasing doughnuts and coffee with $100 bills wouldn’t stand out. Three days later Stafford police arrested a 31-year-old woman for car theft. But, to be fair, the victim may have been dumber than the thief – the car had been left unlocked and running in a driveway!

The most serious episode of crime related to Southern Ocean County in 2018 didn’t actually happen in Southern Ocean County, but it did involve a 39-year-old Manahawkin man.

He was in Mantoloking on Nov. 12 when police there moved in to arrest him for outstanding charges of kidnapping, unlawful possession of a weapon, possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, theft and aggravated assault. The man had a knife and didn’t drop it when police told him to do so. So the police released a K-9 officer, Kane. The man in question stabbed Kane, so police opened fire. The suspect was pronounced dead at the scene by the Ocean County medical examiner.

No. 19: Offshore Oil Drilling Still a Threat. In early January, the Trump administration announced it wanted to give the green light to the largest expansion of offshore oil drilling in decades, not only in the Gulf of Mexico and Arctic Ocean, but in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans as well, including the previously closed-to-drilling coast between Maine and Florida. The Garden State, of course, is smack in the middle of that area.

The state’s Democrats, including Senators Bob Menendez and Cory Booker, along with then Governor-elect Phil Murphy and Congressman Frank Pallone Jr., immediately protested and shot off a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke opposing the plan, saying an oil spill would kill New Jersey’s tourism and fishing industries.

Later that month, LBI’s Alliance for a Living Ocean urged a campaign against offshore drilling. In February, New Jersey residents, including a number of Southern Ocean County locals, crammed into a Bureau of Ocean Energy Management open-house meeting in the Hamilton Hilton Garden to express their concerns. In March, Booker and Menendez called for a 60-day extension of the public comment period. In April, Gov. Murphy signed a law prohibiting offshore exploration, development and production drilling for oil or natural gas in state waters, a law that was supported by local Republican legislators Christopher J. Connors, Brian E. Rumpf and DiAnne C. Gove. Indeed, the vote in Trenton was bipartisan, 37-0 in the state Senate while only one assembly member voted against the ban.

Alas, New Jersey’s state waters extend only 3 miles from shore, and in June, GOP members of the U.S. House of Representatives drafted legislation that would heavily fine states that do not approve of drilling off their coasts. The proposed legislation went nowhere, but in November the Trump administration proved it still had its sights on the Atlantic, authorizing five companies to conduct geological and geophysical seismic surveys from Delaware to Florida.

Environmentalists believe seismic surveys hurt marine mammals. Just as importantly, they believe such surveys are nothing but explorations for oil and natural gas.

Expect this issue to be in the news as long as the Trump administration remains in power.

No. 18: Kite Festival Takes Off. Only 4 years old, the annual LBI FLY kite festival may already be the largest kite flying event in North America. And it is still growing, with organizers saying the 2018 version was the biggest yet.

But the festival had better be careful not to get too big for its britches. Sure, local business owners love it because it draws hundreds, perhaps thousands, of participants and onlookers to the Island in general and Ship Bottom in particular. But even before last year’s event on Columbus Day weekend was held, concerns about parking, traffic and pedestrian safety were being raised at Ship Bottom Borough Council meetings.

The kite festival is held on the same holiday weekend as the Island’s 18-Mile Run. If a runner was ever hit by a motorist, perhaps one who was rubbernecking to see the huge kites, well, it wouldn’t be a pretty picture, no matter how beautiful the kites are on a sunny day.

Folks are hoping another tourist-related innovation, a passenger ferry from the Tuckerton Seaport to Beach Haven, also takes off, or at least stays figuratively as well as literally afloat. The 28-passenger pontoon boat Pohatcong II didn’t make its inaugural trip until November but, thanks to good weather, was well received by its passengers. It is set to operate a full schedule in 2019 from July 4 through Labor Day.

No. 17: Dredging Begins on Osborn Island. It took residents of Little Egg Harbor Township’s Osborn Island some seven years, but in September their labors were finally rewarded when the dredging of the low points of four of their lagoons began.

The Osborn Island Residents Association Dredging Committee had to jump through more hoops than a circus dog to realize its dream, obtaining permission from the Army Corps of Engineers, the New Jersey DEP and the state Bureau of Tidelands. And Osborn Island residents will have to pony up their own money for the job to be done by Wickberg Marine Contracting of Bedford. The job, including attorney fees and soft costs, will run approximately $1.5 million. It will be paid by a special tax assessment of $5,213 per waterfront property that can be paid in installments of approximately $579 a year for 10 years.

The project was widely supported by such residents. The township sent out letters to 336 affected residents to see if they approved of the special assessment; 232 responded and 215 approved.

No. 16: Flu and Measles. The year 2018 in New Jersey and Ocean County was book-ended by two disease outbreaks, the flu in the winter and measles in the fall.

In February, the state Department of Health reported more than double the number of flu cases in the 2017-18 season as compared to 2016-17. In November, the Ocean County Health Department reported an outbreak of measles in Lakewood.

The measles outbreak started out small, with only four cases being diagnosed. Well, that’s not really that small considering only three cases had been found in all of New Jersey in 2017. And by the end of December there were 33 confirmed cases with another under investigation.

The moral of this story? Get your shots!

No. 15: Clear Cutting Avoided in the Pinelands. A controversy raged in the Bass River State Forest for most of 2018 when the NJDEP planned on clear cutting 19 acres of trees to improve the sight lines for a fire tower. The biggest problem was that almost four acres of those trees weren’t just any trees, but 80-foot-tall white pines planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

Removal of those white pines, critics said, would destroy the historic nature of the CCC campsite. It would also destroy a favorite trail, dubbed The Cathedral because of its 80-foot canopy.

But the DEP said a study had shown that replacing and raising the fire tower would cost a cash-strapped state nearly a half-million dollars.

In October, the DEP told the Pinelands Commission it was withdrawing its initial application and would submit a revised application in the future, which will open up a whole new round of public comment.

In other words, expect this story to return in 2019.

No. 14: The Fix Is In. Actually the fixes are in, as in beach replenishment projects. Beach restoration work was completed in the Brant Beach section of Long Beach Township in May, in Surf City in August and, after being delayed by weather, in Harvey Cedars in October. That means all of the beach restoration projects approved by the Army Corps of Engineers on LBI are finally complete.

Now, if only the weather cooperates and doesn’t hit the Island with a hurricane or a long string of nor’easters.

No. 13: Beach Haven Has a New Borough Hall. If you look hard enough you can still see plenty of scars in Southern Ocean County and LBI left by 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, but one has definitely disappeared.

Beach Haven Borough Hall was destroyed by Sandy, forcing officials to run the Queen City out of the old U.S. Coast Guard station on Pelham Avenue. But in March a new borough hall opened for business on the site of the old structure at the corner of Engleside and Bay avenues.

It is a $7.2 million building, with $5 million coming from federal Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funds. The remaining $2.2 million was financed by a 30-year low-interest loan.

A formal grand opening reception for the gleaming new building wasn’t held until Nov. 2. That’s because that was six years to the day after Beach Haven first started recovering from Sandy.

No. 12: Parkland Shooting Reverberates in Southern Ocean County. Feb. 14, 2018, will long be remembered as the Valentine’s Day from hell because of the killing of 17 students and staff members of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

The horrifying incident led to a spate of letters to the editor of The SandPaper, with many demanding stricter gun control while others defended the 2nd Amendment. It forced local school districts to assess their security situations and local police departments to plan and train for responses. Southern Regional School District students walked out of school – with the administration’s blessing – to observe 17 minutes of silence to honor the Parkland victims; Pinelands Regional students weren’t allowed to walk out, with the Pinelands administration and local police worried such an action could invite a shooting of its own.

Unfortunately, Parkland also inspired copycats. Thank God, local students didn’t actually come to school packing guns. But Pinelands had to deal with two threats in the weeks following the Parkland school shooting, one by a 19-year-old student and another by a 15-year-old former student. And the Stafford Township School District and the Stafford Township Police Department had to deal with seven students who were arrested and charged with making terroristic threats. Those seven students were – and you just can’t make this up – sixth-graders!

No. 11: Pot or Not? Gov. Phil Murphy wanted to see recreational marijuana legalized by the end of 2018. It wasn’t.

Oh, it would be a fairly safe bet to say pot will be legalized in the Garden State in 2019. Legislation, after all, has already passed through both state Senate and Assembly committees, needing only full floor votes and Murphy’s signature to turn bills into laws. But T’s must be crossed and I’s dotted, and it has been reported the holdup is a disagreement between Murphy and Senate and Assembly leaders over how much to tax pot sales.

Meanwhile, opponents have been busy at the county and local levels, passing resolutions and ordinances that would ban the sale, farming and manufacture of pot. At least 47 New Jersey municipalities have said “not in our backyard” to marijuana, including Barnegat Township and Surf City. Towns don’t have the power to totally ban pot if the state legalizes it for folks 21 years or age and older, but they can regulate – indeed, not allow – sales.

No matter where you live in New Jersey, don’t expect to be able to buy a jar of buds for recreational use anytime soon. Even if the Legislature passes legalization legislation and Murphy signs it into law, it would take months for regulations to be finalized and stores to be licensed.

So, a lot of news so far, right? Wait until you see Part 2 of this story next week, because, believe me, it was a busy year for news in Southern Ocean County.

Very busy.

rickmellerup@thesandpaper.net

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