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Jets first-round draft pick offensive lineman D'Brickashaw Ferguson listens to the screams of fans. The team is moving its practice facility to Florham Park, Morris County's No. 4 story for 2006.

Demolition began at the Epstein's department store this year to make way for redevelopment, including luxury condominiums and an office building.

12/31/06 - Posted from the Daily Record newsroom
Top 10 Morris County stories for 2006

It's been a year of loss, and a year of hope.

Morris County felt many losses this past year. The loss of the young always is the most tragic, and for Morris County young people, the road to tragedy wound through their homes, neighborhoods and around the world, with casualties on local roads and in Iraq. But a downtown area started a new beginning as a redevelopment project got under way in Morristown, and the Jets are moving in nearby.

Those all are among the top ten local news stories of the year. Here's the countdown:

10. Highlands plan

Landowners throughout most of Morris County could face more roadblocks to developing their properties if their towns choose to follow the Highlands draft regional master plan released in November.

The plan was two years in the making and was developed in response to the 2004 Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act.

The plan breaks the region into three basic zones to overlay atop existing municipal zoning. In the protection zone, more than two-thirds of the region, people would essentially be allowed to build only one house per lot. In the conservation zone, largely agricultural land that makes up 18 percent of the Highlands, a maximum of 2 of every 10 acres could be developed on most lots. In the planned community zone, development would be allowed, depending on the environmental characteristics of a given lot and the quality and quantity of water available to it.

All the restrictions would apply automatically throughout that half of the 860,000-acre region called the preservation area, but they would apply only in towns in the planning area that agree to conform to the regional plan.

Environmental groups support the proposed plan, while some groups of property owners oppose it. Public hearings begin in January.

9. Two plead guilty in Seton Hall fire

Nearly seven years after a dormitory blaze killed three Seton Hall University students, two former college roommates admitted in November to setting the fire.

Joseph T. LePore and Sean Ryan, both 26 and of Florham Park, each faced charges including three murder counts, which each carried a minimum of 30 years in prison. Their plea deal dropped murder charges and will send them to prison for no more than five years.

"I did not intend to harm anyone. It was a prank that got out of hand," the two 26-year-olds said in matching statements in Superior Court. Their sentencing will be on Jan. 26.

They admitted they ignited a banner in a third-floor lounge of Boland Hall, which set a couch ablaze at the Roman Catholic school in South Orange on Jan. 19, 2000. Dozens were injured while escaping, several with serious burns, and three students died.

Defense attorneys said the deal was appropriate in part because the school did not have adequate systems to prevent the blaze from spreading.

The fire led New Jersey to enact the nation's first mandatory dormitory sprinkler law.

8. Shooting at Wild West City

Scott Harris of Netcong, an actor at Wild West City, was shot in the head in July during a routine gunfight reenactment at the Byram theme park.

Harris, 37, was moved recently to a residential rehabilitation program in Newton and remains paralyzed on his right side, a small-caliber bullet lodged in the back of his head.

It was the first serious accident at the 50-year-old theme park.

Earlier, this month, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Wild West City for allegedly not following industry-standard safety procedures.

Sussex County law enforcement officials still are investigating the shooting. Information has not yet been released on who fired the bullet, why at least one real gun was used during the act and how a bullet got into it.

7. Christ Church plan approved

After contentious public hearings that spanned 34 months, the Rockaway Township Planning Board voted in October to approve the 5,000-member Christ Church application to build on the former Agilent site on Green Pond Road.

Church Pastor David Ireland said that, ideally, construction would begin next fall, with the church opening at the site a year later.

But the process is not over yet.

The church filed a federal lawsuit in April 2005, accusing the township of stalling and trying to undermine the building plan. The lawsuit still is pending.

The state Department of Environmental Protection is still reviewing the church's application for a Highlands development exemption. The church received the exemption in 2004 but the state Appellate Division, in response to a legal challenge from Rockaway Township, ordered the DEP to take a second look.

In November, Ireland requested that the planning board reconsider the condition that parking spaces be reduced from 1,370 to 900. The Church plans to build a sanctuary with room for 2,512 people, and Ireland said 900 parking spaces might not be enough for worshipers.

6. Mayoral recalls

The mayors of sprawling Mount Olive and tiny Victory Gardens were recalled in November's general election. They were the first mayoral recalls in Morris County in more than 20 years.

In Mount Olive, voters ousted Mayor Richard De La Roche by a vote of 4,319 to 1,688. Voters chose former councilman David Scapicchio to fill the mayor's seat.

The move came after much bickering between the mayor and council. A previous recall effort had been unsuccessful.

In Victory Gardens, Mayor Nanette Courtine was recalled from office by a 129-70 vote and was replaced by Councilwoman Betty Simmons.

The election drew 204 voters, or 41 percent of the borough's 506 registered voters. That included 76 absentee ballots cast, or 37 percent of the votes, an unusually high proportion.

Courtine is contesting the election results, asserting voter fraud. A hearing will be held Feb. 13 in Superior Court in Morristown. Two residents said recently that they were subpoenaed because they backed her ouster and because they voted by absentee ballot.

5. Start of the Epstein's project

Epstein's department store literally crumbled in October, as a much-anticipated redevelopment project began with demolition of the building that has stood on West Park Place and Market Street in Morristown for nearly 100 years.

The multimillion-dollar redevelopment project is intended to revitalize the downtown.

In place of the 75,000-square-foot department store, which closed two years ago, 116 sleek luxury condominiums and 132 high-end rental units will rise by 2008. An additional 70,000 square feet of retail space and 20,000 square feet of office space will be available.

An 800-space parking garage, an environmentally friendly office building on Maple Avenue and a loft building on DeHart street also are planned.

4. Jets announce move to Florham Park

The New York Jets' announcement in April that the pro-football team will move its headquarters and training facility to Florham Park was a sports highlight of monumental proportions not only for local fans but for county and town political leaders as well.

The Jets chose Florham Park over about 40 other North Jersey towns. The team's base currently is at Hofstra University on Long Island.

The team will move to the ExxonMobil property near Route 24. The Jets want to build a 120,000-square-foot facility on 26 acres. An indoor, regulation-sized football field will be enclosed in a 95-foot-tall structure. There also will be four outdoor regulation-sized football fields, three grass and one with artificial turf.

In May, the Jets threw a public party in town attended by VIPs and hundreds of team fans.

Shovels may begin digging as soon as February, officials from Florham Park and the professional football team have said, and Jets President Jay Cross has said the practice field and headquarters should be usable for the team in June 2008.

3. Drug deaths in record numbers

A record number of people -- at least 30 -- died from drug overdoses in Morris County this year.

Many of the overdose deaths involved heroin, although most involved a combination of drugs.

The numbers were revealed at a drug awareness summit held in September that was one of several such meetings held by various groups across the county.

Experts and teens at the summit said prescription painkillers are popular among young people. The summit was held in the wake of "Operation Painkiller," when the Prosecutor's Office in July conducted a sweep of arrests of young people charged with being involved with the sale or possession of prescription painkillers. That investigation resulted in another record: 58 suspects rounded up in one sweep. Many of those cases still are pending.

2. Morris natives killed in Iraq

The war in Iraq is grinding on, and this year it claimed the lives of two more Morris County natives.

Marine Lance Cpl. Christopher Benedict Cosgrove III of Cedar Knolls, a 2001 graduate of Whippany Park High School, was killed on Oct. 1. The 23-year-old had volunteered to man the Fallujah roadway checkpoint where a suicide car bomb was detonated.

Cosgrove came from a family of men who served in the military or in law enforcement, and had enlisted the year before he graduated from Monmouth University.

His funeral in Madison was attended by hundreds of people in uniforms of all types.

Marine Pfc. Donald Brown of Roxbury, 19, was killed on Oct. 25 by a roadside bomb in Haditha.

Brown graduated Roxbury High School in June 2005 and joined the Marines in September 2005. He was deployed to Iraq this past September and was in line for promotion to lance corporal the week of his death. He was awarded the Purple Heart, the National Defense Service Medal, the Iraq Campaign Medal, and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.

Cosgrove and Brown both were engaged to be married.

Five other servicemen from Morris County have been killed in Iraq since the start of the war.

1. Teens die in crashes

Several Morris County teenagers and young adults lost their lives in car crashes this year.

In April, Jonathan K. Lutke, 20, of Chatham, was killed on Route 287 in Montville. He was a passenger in a vehicle that was struck by an out-of-control car driven by Alfred J. Struble of Pompton Lakes. In November, Struble pleaded guilty to death by auto, assault by auto, and driving while intoxicated.

Also in April, Louis R. Bizzarro III, 18, of Roxbury, died on Route 80. He was a passenger in a car driven his friend, Eavan L. Jenkins, also of Roxbury, when it veered across three lanes, off the road, and hit two trees in their home town. In October Jenkins pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide and drunken driving.

In May, Justin Hiller, 17, of Butler, died of injuries he received in a crash on Hamburg Turnpike in Wayne. The same accident killed Brian Pereira, 16, of Newfoundland. Both were passengers in a car driven by an unidentified 16-year-old from Riverdale that spun out of control and into oncoming traffic, striking another vehicle.

In June, Sarah G. Bradford, 20, of Hackettstown, died when she lost control of her car on Route 80 in Hope and crashed into two trees. Police at the time said rainy weather might have caused the accident.

Earlier this month, Tanner Birch, 17, and Kyleigh D'Alessio, 16, died when the Audi TT Birch was driving veered off Fairview Avenue in Washington Township and hit a tree. The crash also injured two other passengers, Trevor Birch, 19, who is Tanner's brother, and Kristen Conrad, 16. All are of Washington Township. Police are still investigating the accident. The injured are recovering. Funerals for Tanner Birch and D'Alessio were held this past week.

And on Friday, 18-year-old Katelyn J. Wooding of Morris Township died after the car she was driving on Lake Road in that town hit a tree. Police are investigating.