Shamong Township caps off 2019 with a year of enlightenment, heart

Before diving into a new year and a new decade, let’s take a look back at some of Shamong’s biggest stories from 2019.

“Shamong Township is worth fighting for.”

This sentence, released as part of a statement submitted by Democratic township committee candidates Eileen Carlos and Lauren Smith, sums up the year that was in Shamong. Residents fought for what they believed in when it came to a number of hot-button topics in town.

A traffic circle at a dangerous intersection in town brought out a variety of opinions from residents and officials. Another spirited debate centered around cannabis and whether Shamong would permit its sale in the near future. Some residents also fought against a proposed cell phone tower just weeks before the 2019 township committee election.

Before diving into a new year and a new decade, let’s take a look back at some of Shamong’s biggest stories from 2019.

Township officials, residents debate installation of traffic circle

One of the biggest stories of the year in Shamong involved a lengthy discussion regarding a possible traffic circle at the intersection of Willow Grove Road and Stokes Road.

The issue first came up at a Shamong Township Committee meeting in early February, as the committee reviewed a Burlington County engineering plan to put a traffic circle at the intersection to replace the two-way stop sign currently present. According to Township Administrator Sue Onorato, the intersection was in the top 20 worst intersections in the state and top four worst intersections in the county. Onorato suggested a traffic circle could reduce incidents.

At the time, township engineer Dan Guzzi estimated the cost would be about $20 million, with the entire project funded by the federal government.

“(Traffic circles) do tend to work once people see them and there’s signage there. (The county) confident that this will reduce the accidents and the incidents dramatically,” Guzzi said.

One month later, resident Elaine Billmeyer spoke before the township committee, suggesting officials explore less expensive options for the intersection.

“My gut says we don’t need a million dollar circle and we certainly don’t need a $20 million circle,” Mayor Michael DiCroce said. “I’m going to at least keep an open mind and take a look at the studies and suggestions, but I’m in the same mindset that even if it’s free, if we don’t need it then we don’t want it.”

Later in the spring, the committee met with the county to discuss a plan to provide a safer intersection. According to the committee, it did not go into the meeting with intentions to discuss a roundabout. The committee met with the county to discuss a plan to provide a safer intersection, pitching a plan to add flashing LED lights to the already existing stop signs.

The proposed traffic circle came up again for conversation at the Sept. 3 committee meeting, where DiCroce said he didn’t feel a circle fit aesthetically in the area.

“I don’t think the roundabout is needed there,” DiCroce said. “The fact remains that the county came out with a position that if there was a lawsuit and we didn’t take the recommendation, we could be held liable.”

Township Solicitor Douglas Heinold said if the county “or someone higher up” told the township it needed to follow a certain solution and the township doesn’t, and a serious or fatal accident occurs, the township could be held liable.

Carlos, a candidate in the 2019 Shamong Township Committee election, brought up a question regarding how much the project would cost, saying “Transportation Improvement Planning” documents from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, a federally designated metropolitan planning organization, showed the project is estimated to be around $2.5 million for construction and designing.

Guzzi later said at the meeting the circle would cost “nowhere near” $20 million. However, Carlos noted at the committee meeting on Nov. 6 that no other committee member refuted the $20 million price tag. On Nov. 6, DiCroce confirmed the estimated cost of the circle was $2 million.

“The information was not incorrect and the statements made were correct, and it’s good to know that the real truth didn’t come out until just now,” Carlos said on Nov. 6.

No further comment was made about the status of the proposed circle prior to the end of the year.

Township officials, residents discuss cannabis at multiple committee meetings

Another major debate at Shamong Township Committee meetings this year was whether to adopt an ordinance to permit the production, distribution and sale of cannabis.

Several residents voiced their opinions about marijuana in Shamong during a meeting in early March. DiCroce also discussed the different issues surrounding marijuana township officials intended to discuss.

“If we can have our farmers and our residents here utilize that product, it’s just another product,” DiCroce said. “If we can allow our farmers to grow this and it can be distributed here and it can be done properly so the children are protected.”

DiCroce said farmers are struggling and this can be a means for them to utilize parts of their farms while still growing other crops. DiCroce also mentioned there is a medical side of this to explore and discuss.

The issue came back up in early June when the township committee passed a resolution expressing its intent to adopt an ordinance on marijuana. The goal of the resolution was to share the committee’s intentions for future legislation with the public. It did not put any changes into effect.

DiCroce said the resolution expressed the township’s desire to prepare for a possible vote on legalized marijuana in 2020 and to start a dialogue with those in the cannabis industry.

“My goal, and the vision is, if we could be the only town in New Jersey that was property tax-free,” DiCroce said at the meeting.

The topic came up for conversation again during a committee meeting in early August. Shamong resident Martha Bohi expressed her concerns about the resolution to the committee during public comment and added she did not support having the cannabis industry in town.

On the other side of the table, another resident, Bill Lampman, expressed his support for the cannabis industry coming to Shamong.

“If it becomes legal, somebody’s going to grow it,” Lampman said at the meeting. “Why not be on the ground floor? I think it’s a great idea.”

“Why not be on the ground floor? Because I would venture to say my poll of 80 percent or more people want to remain anonymous,” Bohi said in reply. “If we work in Trenton, or Philadelphia or Mount Laurel, we’re willing to drive because when we come home we’re in a nice, little anonymous town, and this will put us on the map. We’re now going to be known and our anonymity will be lost forever.”

Shamong Township Committee did not take action on the cannabis industry in 2019.

Republicans victorious again in Shamong Township Committee election

Shamong Township Committee will remain all Republican in 2020 after incumbents Timothy Gimbel and DiCroce easily won in the 2019 election.

Gimbel earned 32.84 percent of the vote and Di Croce 32.81 percent of the vote, according to the Burlington County Board of Elections. The Democratic challengers Eileen Carlos and Lauren Smith earned 17.16 and 17.13 percent of the vote, respectively.

“The voter turnout on a non-election year really validates what we’re trying to do,” Gimbel said of the 1,924 voters who went to the polls. “I think that’s really the story. It validates what we’re doing and I would commend Ms. Smith and Carlos for coming and giving a different view or opinion than ours, which is what’s great about our country.”

DiCroce said he and Gimbel were made aware of a few registered Democrats who switched parties at the polls to re-elect them, a sign that people vote based on issues and not party lines.

“I think most people want to look at the issues and figure out what’s the right answer and what’s the best thing to do for people in the town,” he said.

Opponents Carlos and Smith commended the support of their families, friends and voters, and recalled how, as running mates, they came to be where they are now.

“Lauren, a registered Republican, met Eileen, a registered Democrat, who came together by the fate of friends,” the candidates said in a joint statement to The Sun. “Both were discouraged by the elements that drive us and decided that we would run together to do what is best by the township.”

The Shamong Township Board of Education election was uncontested, with incumbents Jeffrey Warner and Jeffrey Siedlecki winning two open seats.

Parents voice concerns after school bus driver accused of watching porn on cell phone

A number of Shamong parents attended a board of education meeting in late February searching for answers after a school bus driver was arrested for allegedly watching porn in the presence of students.

According to the Office of the Attorney General, “staff members from the Indian Mills Elementary School were notified that two children informed their parents that they observed their school bus driver, Franck Lafortune, watching a pornographic video on his cell phone prior to exiting the bus at 8:30 a.m. (on Feb. 4).”

Superintendent Christine Vespe outlined the sequence of events for the community, which saw the district notified of the incident via email on Feb. 5 with a press release announcing Lafortune’s arrest coming out the next day.

Parents MaryKathryn O’Brien said her son attends Indian Mills School and was not on the bus where the incident occurred. However, she expressed disappointment within the administration for allowing students to ride the bus home on the afternoon of Feb. 4 with the same bus driver after learning of the alleged event that occurred that morning.

Parent Donna McClelland also spoke about the importance of the safety of children in the district during public comment.

“The first and foremost priority we have as a parent is the social, emotional and physical safety of our children,” McClelland said. “Effective communication builds and fosters trust. Communication must be specific, transparent and forthcoming. Effective, proactive communication creates a culture of trust between parents and administration.”

Opposition to potential Verizon phone tower gets a signal boost

Shamong residents made their voices heard in opposition to a planned cell phone tower in the township.

A petition with more than 100 signatures was presented to the Shamong Township Committee in October. The petition asked the township to “make funds available to approve the hiring of township professionals for the Shamong Township Joint Land Use Board.” The petition later added the residents request the township to oppose the construction of a tower at 449 Oakshade Road and to seek other viable options.

The cell tower, proposed for the Opici Wine location in the township, was originally denied by the township’s planning board in February 2018. After denying the application, the planning board was sued by Tower North. Former Superior Court Justice Ronald Bookbinder ruled in favor of Tower North.

“This has been litigated for years,” DiCroce said. “If people say ‘I want to use my phone, but I don’t want a tower,’ federal rulings said you have to allow them where they’re permitted.”

“When the applicant came, they needed to have approvals from the FCC, and the FCC did all types of analysis and had to prove the weakness of the signals and what areas are in need of additional coverage,” Onorato added about the proposed tower. “That circle was around the old five-points.”

Onorato also said despite the township’s efforts to propose other township-owned property (including the school district’s, to which they denied it), the Opici Wine location came up as the next best option.

According to FCC documents, a cell tower license was issued for the proposed site. If approved, the tower would carry 3G, 4G LTE and the 5G signals to Verizon Wireless customers in the township.

The concerns among residents were over possible radiation exposure to children, with the proposed site abutting Indian Mills Memorial School. Carlos also inquired about a Shamong ordinance on cell phone towers, which required towers to go on township property.

In reply, Onorato said there was a limit to where the tower could go due to the FCC’s permit location, the state’s regulation on open land and the Pinelands regulations.

The township committee ultimately voted in favor of allowing the Joint Land Use Board to hire professionals to research all other lands in the township to find another viable site for the tower that would fit all Pinelands and FCC regulations. As 2019 came to a close, there were no further updates regarding the proposed tower.

Municipal and school taxes go up in Shamong Township

Residents saw an increase in both municipal and school taxes in 2019 when both the township committee and the board of education approved their budgets in the spring.

In May, the Shamong BOE kicked things off with the approval of its 2019-20 budget featuring a 2 percent tax increase. The owner of a home assessed at the average value of $308,498 saw an annual increase of $95.86 in school taxes. Officials said the increase was partially due to a loss of more than $163,000 in state funding.

“We’re really maintaining, not adding, due to the state cuts,” said Laura Archer, business administrator and board secretary.

Despite the state cuts, the district was able to keep its programs and personnel the same as 2018-19. The total budget was $14,846,170, a decrease of 0.63 percent from the previous year due to the cuts in state funding. The local tax levy provided most of the revenue for the district at $9,560,498.

The following month, Shamong Township Committee approved its 2019 budget featuring an increase in municipal taxes. On June 5, the committee unanimously adopted its municipal budget featuring an increase of $160 for the average assessed home.

The total budget in Shamong Township for 2019 was $3,423,918, an increase from 2018’s budget of $3,258,367. A big reason for the increase was due to the purchase of a backhoe, payments for a plow truck, $40,000-worth of repairs to the township’s public works building and $39,000-worth of debt service replacements.

Shamong joins Burlington County recycling program

One of the most notable changes made in Shamong in 2019 was the addition of new recycling bins in the township. Shamong Township Committee approved the change during a meeting in early May.

The new change provided residents with new recycling bins with wheels to replace the old yellow buckets. The bins were given to residents at an annual cost of $5 per household for six years.

There were concerns the new bins would break and cause residents to pay more in the future, but the committee said the new bins needed to be added since the county would not pick up recycling placed in the old bins anymore.

“So these will replace the yellow buckets that we’ve been using. I’ve had mine for 25 years and not a problem with it, so now we’re going to have carts with wheels and a lid on it and we’ll have broken wheels and broken lids,” DiCroce said.

Burlington County eventually plans to have trucks pick up the bins using a mechanical arm. The new bins are specifically shaped for the new trucks.

Sending districts to the Lenape Regional High School District, and the district itself, address state aid cuts

Shawnee High School was the host of a multi-district forum in February, coordinated by Lenape Regional, to discuss their impact on the reduction of state aid and their sending district’s losses as well. The seven districts, with the exception of Mt. Laurel and Medford Lakes, are expected to lose a combined $24 million by the 2024-2025 school year.

A vocal critic of the sharp cuts, Evesham Township Superintendent John Scavelli Jr. stated his district has an estimated loss of $9 million in funding by the 2024-2025 school year. The district has dropped in enrollment since its 2003 peak, but ratables and residents’ wealth have risen in that time period.

Joe Del Rossi, Medford Township Public Schools Superintendent, commented if Lenape’s sending district cuts don’t get reversed, taxes would need to be raised to recuperate the loss and further cuts would need to be done in academic programs, social and emotional learning, personnel and facilities.

Southampton Superintendent Michael Harris placed himself in the front seat of the statewide coalition of districts called Support Our Students advocacy group. Members hail from more than 60 districts serving nearly 140,000 students in the state. The group, Harris said, urges residents to persuade their state lawmakers to enact a change to address their needs for equitable funding for the state’s 585 districts.

The breakdown of expected cuts are:

Evesham Township is estimated to lose about $9,003,394; Lenape Regional is estimated to lose about $8,308,946; Medford Township is estimated to lose about $1,603,435; Shamong Township is estimated to lose about $1,155,459; Southampton Township is estimated to lose about $1,141,089; Tabernacle Township is estimated to lose about $2,752,887 and Woodland Township is estimated to lose about $186,164.

‘Family’ runs deep in Seneca by money for various charities

Seneca High School is fully engrossed in the phrase they call their 1,000-plus community: Seneca Family. Each and every year, their “family” does all they can to support all who walk through the front doors to become a Golden Eagle, and there was nothing short of that this year with their numerous fundraisers to provide monetary support to past and present staff and students.

Students battled against the Red Lion Barracks of the N.J. State Police in a charity basketball game in early June. Benefits from the thunderous game went toward an unnamed scholarship fund. An estimated 35 seniors signed up to face those of the highest law in the state. More seniors were invited down to the court for halftime activities and spectators were treated to a K-9 demonstration by Absolute Control Dog Training Academy.

To the State Police’s dismay and exhaustion, seniors won 64-63 with a game-winning foul shot scored by Car Gibbs with less than a second left in the game. It is unknown how much money was raised.

Seneca Student Council members held a car wash in September to raise money for a former assistant athletic director’s daughter. Marquita Rucker, a 2004 Lenape High School graduate, is battling stage 5 kidney disease and the fundraisers help offset many of the costs of treatments and medications that Rucker’s insurance doesn’t cover. Father Fred Rucker retired from Seneca in 2014 and he commented the car wash was a reunion for him in many aspects as he saw former students there.

Students welcomed the family to the fundraiser with open arms and expressed their love for Fred and their willingness to help Marquita out. A total of $600 was donated to the family.

New mentorship program launched at Seneca for its female population

Female Empowerment is brewing in the halls of Seneca as 10 students are placed in a mentorship program with faculty to help them achieve goals and work through problems they may have. The program was created by math teacher Jenn Denn to better serve the female population at Seneca.

Any sophomore, junior and senior is welcomed with wide arms into the program (freshmen are excluded due to the transition to high school). Additionally, mentors are always teachers and coaches the students do not, or will not, have during their time at Seneca. No administrators are able to be mentors. The requirements were put in place to allow students to speak freely and not feel pressured to follow through with advice provided to them.

“[The program] has helped me connect with other girls who I would have never been friends with, and are now in this group together,” student Morgan Hough said. “We’re sharing these experiences, and it’s something very special that I’m very grateful to be a part of.”

Seneca graduate welcomed home from deployment in time for the holidays

As an SrA and a charismatic person in her job, Regina Iezzi was given many nicknames, but on Nov. 30, the crowd at Medford’s Ott’s called her a SHE-ro as they welcomed her home for the holidays after her deployment to Afghanistan.

Iezzi, who was flustered and humble throughout the night, was handed various certificates and tokens of appreciation from civic groups and the Burlington Board of Chosen Freeholders.

Her family is a military family with her brothers, grandfather and dad enlisting in the Army. Life took a different turn for her as she switched out of the Army and into the Air Force Reserves where she did administrative work. Home in Southampton, she attends Rowan University for pre-medicine. Where she’s going afterward, she’s unsure, but she’s happy to pursue a degree.

The 2015 Seneca High School graduate said she constantly thought about her friends who were stationed and held hope they would also be able to go home for the holidays. She is, however, excited to be home and eat a variety of foods and shower with clean water.

“You had to eat whatever they had, and so I’m excited to be able to have variety again,” she said. “I can go to the grocery store and buy whatever I want.”