EAGLESWOOD TOWNSHIP - While a group of children played in the back of the meeting room Monday night inside the small historic former schoolhouse that serves as town hall, Mayor Debra Rivas considered a noise ordinance on the committee's agenda.

"I don't like it at all," she said, chewing a piece of gum as usual. "This is Eagleswood, not the city. We're not supposed to do this."

Residents in the audience nodded their heads in agreement. For several years the committee has discussed an ordinance regulating noise, but resisted it for fear it would be too restrictive and take away from the rural, affable nature of the community.

"This is Small Town USA," said Deputy Mayor James R. Pine, who was born and raised in the area, "and we're losing a little piece of it tonight."

The debate over noise shows just how quiet this town is, and how badly it wants to remain that way.

Not too long ago southern Ocean County consisted solely of sleepy, undeveloped shore towns. Since then, most have grown and progressed by leaps and bounds, while Eagleswood has decidedly plodded along - an exception and an example of what used to be the rule.

For the past 80 years, the town has been the slowest growing in the county that isn't part of a barrier island. Since 1930, only about 1,000 new people have moved in, compared to more than 21,500 in Stafford Township to the north and more than 15,400 in Little Egg Harbor Township to the south.

As of the last census, it had by far the lowest population density in the county, at 87 people per square mile. In southern Ocean, Lacey Township was next, at 299 people per square mile.

"That's what we love," said township Clerk and Administrator Elaine Kennedy. "We want to keep it as it is, and that's why it was so difficult with the noise ordinance. Do we need all these laws?"

Balancing rights

The push for a noise ordinance picked up steam last spring when a group of neighbors started lobbying the governing body to create one after the local State Police officers who patrol the town said there was little they could do about an allegedly noisy neighbor.

"We just felt we had no recourse at all because the town didn't have any kind of noise ordinance," said Stacy Medford, who lives on Cox Avenue. "We were actually quite surprised to find that out."

Every other town in southern Ocean County already has such an ordinance, some dating back decades. The Department of Environmental Protection created a model ordinance for towns to adopt, which many did several years ago. (Most towns have a codebook online where the noise ordinances can be viewed, but Eagleswood also remains the only town in southern Ocean County without a Web site.)

Stafford adopted its ordinance in 1998. This time of year, complaints are an almost daily occurrence there, said Stafford police Lt. Thomas Dellane.

But the Eagleswood committee hoped that residents could sort out their problems without getting law enforcement involved. They often said neighbors should be able to resolve issues themselves.

"It is Eagleswood, and we try not to be too hard-nosed if we can help it," said Committeeman Wayne Thomas.

Medford, who moved to town 17 years ago from Bergen County, said that for several years she tried to talk to her neighbors, asking them to stop partying and being loud after a certain time so she and others could sleep. She said they never stopped, and she felt her rights to peace and quiet were violated.

Bonnie LeFevre, who lives on Stone Road, was born in Ocean County and whose house Medford and others complained about, denied that noise was excessive. She said her family and friends were just having a good time, and she didn't want to see her rights impinged either.

"Life is short, and we like to enjoy it," she said. "I'm sorry my neighbors don't."

'It was a tight knit community.'

Willy Seeley, 39, was born and raised in Eagleswood, in the neighborhood of West Creek (pronounced "crik").

While he now lives in Little Egg Harbor, his family still owns land across from the West Creek Volunteer Fire Department, where he, his brother and his father have all been volunteers for decades.

"When I was a kid you could walk around the block and everyone knew who you was," he said. "It was a tight-knit community. Now if you walk around the block, everyone looks at you funny."

Seeley bemoaned outsiders moving in and bringing with them a "city attitude." He said the town used to be more congenial, where everyone helped each other, but now newer residents keep to themselves and want to change the town to their liking.

That was clearly the overwhelming concern on the minds of residents and officials at Monday's meeting.

"Now the guy living in Staten Island who moves here is just going to be another complainer," Rivas said during the committee's discussion.

Several residents asked for more leniencies with the ordinance, which the committee granted. The restriction on noise after 11 p.m. on weeknights and holidays became 11:30 p.m., and before 9 a.m. on Sunday was moved back to 8 a.m.

When it finally came to a vote, Thomas and Pine both answered, "Yes." Rivas widened her eyes and gave a stern "No."

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