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Large crowd challenges Barnegat mayor over LGBTQ comments

BARNEGAT TOWNSHIP — A standing-room-only crowd spent hours Tuesday night debating civil rights, the Bill of Rights and how to help LGBTQ youth at a sometimes raucous but largely respectful township meeting.

More than 120 people attended in response to Mayor Alfonso Cirulli’s comments last month, in which he encouraged people to oppose a new state law mandating school districts teach middle and high school students about the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Cirulli also called the LGBTQ movement “an affront to Almighty God.” His comments were picked up by national newspapers and caused a firestorm locally.

Cirulli’s entrance was applauded by about a quarter of people in the audience there to support him.

He opened Tuesday by saying he meant “no hatred or bigotry” by his comments, which brought heckles and loud comments from the audience. It took a while for the crowd to settle, with people on both sides of the issue mostly speaking without interruption.

Cirulli said he wanted to inform people about the law and opposed its lack of an opt-out clause, to allow people to pull their children from aspects of LGBTQ curriculum with which they do not agree.

“Why deprive them of their First Amendment rights and strip the rights of parents how to morally raise their children?” Cirulli said. “Some people have faith issues with that, and they have a right to have children opt out. We’re talking about sexual preference here.”

But many stressed that the new law will not teach sexuality but will focus on the positive contributions of LGBTQ people throughout the nation’s history. That information will help students struggling with sexuality issues feel better about themselves and hopefully avoid severe mental health problems, they said.

“LGBTQ youth have disproportionately high rates of suicide and substance abuse disorders due to rejection by family and communities,” said Vinnie Pizzimenti, of Barnegat, who has a school-age child and is a social worker. She said the new curriculum will help provide positive role models.

Thirteen-year-old Sofia Marchena, an eighth-grader from Barnegat, was there with her parents, Alfredo and Sabrina.

“My aunts are part of the LGBTQ, and they are two of the most amazing people my mom has ever met or I have ever met. They have stuck with us through the hardest times we have been through,” Marchena said.

“I believe half of the parents who are here not defending LGBTQ, your kids are probably bisexual,” Marchena said, “because that’s most of the kids in our school.”

Her comments brought loud applause, and some concerns from others in the audience.

“That’s the whole issue, taking the young children and molding them. That’s the issue,” said Cirulli.

Cirulli and Deputy Mayor John Novak stressed that no township services would ever be denied to anyone based on sexual preference.

“What I’d also like to say is that — you all know my background,” Cirulli said, referring to his career as an educator. “We have all the laws on the books that protect everyone from every type of bullying.”

“I wasn’t protected in high school. I wasn’t at all,” said one young man from the back of the room. “I got a pass to leave class 10 minutes early so I wasn’t around other kids.”

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Ben Gravy, of Margate, shown Tuesday during a surf session off Vermont Avenue in Atlantic City, grew up surfing in Longport.

Margate surfer rides 50 waves in 50 states

”If everybody had an ocean, across the USA, then everybody’d be surfin’ like Californi-a ...” — “Surfin’ USA,” the Beach Boys

Local surfer Ben Gravy didn’t need oceans to surf across the USA.

Over the course of three years, the 30-year-old Margate resident rode waves in lakes, oceans, rivers and even a couple wave pools as part of an odyssey that saw him surf in all 50 states.

“I was surfing in Vermont a couple of years ago and some friends mentioned to me that I had surfed in 14 states,” Gravy said. “That gave me the idea that maybe all 50 was possible, and I went for it. It was an incredible journey.”

The first stop was more than 20 years ago in Longport, where Gravy grew up and lived before buying a home in Margate this year.

The last stop was Aug. 12 in Alaska, where he rode a wave on a tidal bore in Turnagain Arm, a waterway that flows into the northwestern part of the Gulf of Alaska. The incoming tide produces waves that can be ridden for minutes at a time.

“It’s the ultimate novelty wave,” Gravy said. “Mine lasted for 7½ minutes, but there are other parts where you can ride for a lot longer.”

He had no trouble finding swells along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico, but others required some creativity.

He researched some kayak websites and discovered a growing culture of river surfing.

One trip proved especially challenging.

His first attempt at surfing the Missouri River in Howell Island, Missouri, nearly ended in tragedy. He was attempting to ride the river’s Centaur Chute offshoot and experienced a wipeout that shook him to the point where he needed two more trips before he could check off that state.

“The first time I tried it, I almost drowned after I got sucked underwater,” Gravy said. “It was a very traumatic experience.”

He said the biggest wave was a 15-foot swell in Ocean Beach just outside of San Francisco. Other memorable rides included a barrel in Narraganset, Rhode Island, and surprising, 8-foot waves on Lake Erie in Pennsylvania.

“It was bombing, dude,” he said.

There were no natural surfing spots in a couple of states, so he had to improvise by visiting wave pools in Scottsdale, Arizona (Big Surf); Omaha, Nebraska (Surf Omaha); and Waco, Texas (BSR Surf Resort).

His trip to Nebraska proved especially rewarding.

“There were like 40 or 50 kids there who had never seen surfing before,” Gravy said. “We wound up pushing them into waves and teaching them. It was almost like we introduced surfing to them.”

Gravy chronicled his trips in a series of YouTube videos that are part of his video production company, Nub TV. He’s extremely popular on social media, with more than 89,000 followers on Instagram and more than 82,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel.

An independent production company is creating a documentary of his journey.

For most of the trips, Gravy loaded up his customized Dodge Ram ProMaster 1500 van with nine surfboards that ranged in length from 5 feet, 6 inches to 9 feet and hit the road.

He was accompanied by friends and family members such as surf photographer Matt “Chank” Ciancaglini, older brother Hob, girlfriend Jordan Verni and local surfers.

Ocean City surfer Rob Kelly surfed with Gravy in Michigan and Minnesota.

“We started on the North Shore of Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota,” Kelly said. “A big storm showed up, which we saw as a way to catch some waves. After we were done, the locals told us that the storm was headed to the other side of the lake, so we drove that night through a snowstorm and surfed in (South Haven) Michigan.

“As crazy as that sounds, it was super fun. It also opened our minds as to what can be done on a surfboard outside of an ocean.”

Gravy made sure to enjoy himself on every wave. Whether it was a 15-foot swell in California or an ankle-high current in Wyoming, he rode it with a smile.

At the end of the trip, as he jumped off the wave in Alaska and the enormity of his accomplishment finally hit him, Gravy peeled off his wetsuit and began to cry.

“I’ve never worked so hard for anything in my life,” he said on his YouTube video. “I did it. ... I finally did it.”

He’s not finished, however.

He’s considering surfing waves in the “Seven Seas” — the Arctic, North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific, South Pacific, Indian and Southern (Antarctic) oceans — in seven days.

“As long as you believe in yourself,” Gravy said, “anything is possible.”

PHOTOS of Margate surfer Ben Gravy

State finds Pleasantville schools' half-days too short

PLEASANTVILLE — Students in the district did not attend school for enough hours on 16 half days last year and the superintendent should have known, a state investigation found.

The Board of Education during a special meeting Tuesday voted to accept the findings of a report by the state Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance that revealed 16 half days during the 2018-19 school year did not meet the required four hours of instructional time, some by as much as 55 minutes.

“Given what I’ve learned and what’s in the OFAC report, we respect the findings of the OFAC report and we have developed early dismissal schedules for all school that conform with state statute and guidelines,” interim Superintendent Dennis Anderson said Wednesday.

School board members did not discuss the OFAC report or a corrective action plan during the four-hour meeting. Instead, much of the time was spent interviewing candidates, debating options and voting on appointments for a board attorney, health insurance broker and casualty insurance broker.

According to the OFAC report, former Superintendent Clarence Alston, who resigned in June, did not fulfill his administrative responsibility as the leader of the district, “ensuring that the half-day instructional schedule used by the district adhered to the statutory and regulatory standards, thereby placing the district’s financial well-being at risk.”

Half-Day Instructional Hours

The half days were the subject of last-minute changes to the school schedule at a June meeting.

The report states the deficit was pointed out by the state-appointed monitor, Constance Bauer, who suggested the half-day sessions could be impacting revenue from the lunch program budget, which remains in a deficit.

According to the OFAC report, the instructional time issue has the potential to impact state aid because the commissioner of education is authorized to withhold aid for a district that fails to comply with state rules, standards or directives.

“No state aid shall be paid to any district which has not provided public school facilities for at least 180 days during the preceding school year, but the commissioner, for good cause shown, may remit the penalty,” the report states, quoting statute.

The report criticizes Alston’s leadership in the district, knowledge and honesty in communicating with investigators.

“Dr. Alston did not have sound operational knowledge of the district’s calendar insofar as he was unaware of the correct number of half days used by the district at the time of his interview,” the report concludes, “and apparently remained unaware 11 days later when he queried the investigator before confirming with district resources. Dr. Alston did not provide an accurate representation of the facts in this matter.”

The board adopted a corrective action plan during the meeting for the half-day findings that said each school’s principal had reviewed and revised full-day and early dismissal schedules to comply with state regulations. In addition, the upcoming year’s school calendar was revised to reflect significantly fewer half days.

School Nutrition Program Report

The OFAC report will be referred to the state Board of Examiners for further review and to take whatever action it deems appropriate, according to the resolution on Pleasantville’s agenda for Tuesday.

Other actions taken during the meeting included a vote to accept a corrective action plan for the district lunch program after a review by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture found several issues related to the district’s food-service deficit, one of the reasons Pleasantville continues to have a state fiscal monitor. The report states the district must resolve its deficit by the end of this school year.

The board was also expected to vote on a new board attorney for the upcoming school year, a health insurance broker and a casualty insurance broker, but was only able to approve Atlantic Associates as its casualty insurance broker after hours of discussion and interviews with candidates.

PHOTOS from Pleasantville-Middle season-opening boys soccer game

Neighbors battle development at Middle Township golf course

MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — On a humid September morning, a queue of golfers lined up at the first hole of Laguna Oaks, a par-3 course off Bayberry Drive just east of the Garden State Parkway.

The course, an unusual 10 holes, was once planned as the first step toward an 18-hole course, in a long process that began with developer Fred Langford in the 1990s. To the east, past a line of trees and phragmites, lies a stretch of marsh leading down to Stab Creek and the series of inlets, bays and marshy islands separating Middle Township from Stone Harbor.

To the south is Langford Boulevard, the sparsely developed, high-end single-home community. To the north are a double line of townhouses, with more planned. The first phase saw 45 townhouses completed in 2018, with a proposal for 25 more units awaiting state approval.

The latest development, and what may happen after that, has the neighbors to the north concerned. A group of homeowners from Colonial Avenue and East Pacific Avenue near Middle Township High School has asked Township Committee to block further development.

Several residents attended the Aug. 19 meeting to criticize the development, and to accuse the developers of riding roughshod over environmental regulations. They described the area between the marsh and the parkway as a unique and precious environmental resource.

“We’re here to protest the township’s complicity in the step-by-step efforts of developers Fred Langford and Will Morey, aided by Lomax Consulting, to destroy what’s left of the natural habitat that’s at the heart of our neighborhood,” said Michael Zukerman, a resident of nearby Benny’s Landing Road. “This beautiful natural habitat is why dozens of us have chosen to live in this section of the township,” he said.

In an extensive presentation during the public comment portion of the meeting, residents accused the local government of failing to act to protect the area, and Langford of violating protections, alleging he dug ditches to drain water from protected freshwater wetlands.

Attempts to contact Langford were unsuccessful. Morey, a Cape May County freeholder and principal in Morey’s Piers in Wildwood, denied any wrongdoing on the part of the developer.

According to Morey, Langford has been a family friend for about 70 years, beginning with Morey’s father. He said the Morey organization has provided financial help, along with administrative and managerial support.

“In June 2018, when foreclosure loomed and with it the removal of the golf course in favor of other use, my family formalized our assistance by executing a management agreement between Morey Development Corporation (MDC) and Mr. Langford,” Morey wrote in an email. “Through this agreement, MDC agreed to devote capital and project management resources to assist Mr. Langford in the completion of the Laguna Oaks homes and community.”

At the committee meeting, resident Jim Quirk suggested the golf course was just a means to bring development to the site and said the day after he asked Mayor Tim Donohue for help preserving the area, township trucks were out clearing brush. He said the crews told him their orders came from the mayor.

“That’s a lie. I’m not going to let you lie,” responded Donohue.

“But we do know that Middle Township trucks came and plowed through the wetlands,” Quirk said.

“I’m not saying it didn’t happen. I’m saying I didn’t order anybody to do it. And we have a right-of-way there that needs to be kept clear,” Donohue said. He later said he was not sure what the neighbors wanted the township to do.

Township Administrator Kim Krauss said the accusations were under investigation by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

“We can’t do anything further until the DEP tells us there’s a violation. There’s nothing we can do as a governing body,” she said.

The DEP did not respond to a request for comment.

On Monday, Morey and environmental consultant Peter Lomax toured the site. According to Lomax, the proposed additional units have site plan and subdivision approval from the township Planning Board and will be placed on areas already developed, including the parking lot of the golf course and where there is now a maintenance area.

The new townhomes will be built under a partnership with Ryan Homes and start at about $300,000, Morey said.

The course will be reconfigured but remain, Morey said. It may be reduced to nine holes. Golf courses are in a financially challenging period, he said, but he described the course as Langford’s dream.

According to Morey, accusations that wetlands were being drained were unfounded. He said the accusation stems from a misunderstanding of the history and topography of the property that is being manipulated by the neighbors opposing the project.

He said Langford has preserved part of the property as open space in perpetuity as part of the approval process.

“Simply and directly stated, there is no credible basis on which to conclude that local municipal officials have ‘rubber-stamped’ the approvals required to have Laguna Oaks proceed or that the state has not engaged in a thorough and responsible review throughout its quarter-century of Laguna Oaks permitting history,” Morey wrote.

According to Morey, a number of uses fall within the natural heritage priority site, including other golf courses, neighborhoods and the parkway.

But neighbors insist further development should be blocked.

“We have a government to protect the people in the community from this exact kind of overreach by developers,” Quirk told Township Committee. “I’d just ask you folks to look into this, to find out what’s really going on over there and to protect this land. We should not be building on that land.”