BERNARDS TWP., NJ - Celebrity deaths weren't the only departures to make headlines in 2016: This past year, Basking Ridge lost what was the township's most famous occupant, ever. 

The township's historic white oak tree, believed to be about 600 years old, started out last spring with fewer than usual buds and leaves. But the tree's tenders at the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church - built next to the landmark tree that was already a major marker on colonial maps - hoped for the best and did everything possible to save the tree once again.

But by the end of summer, it was obvious that the majestic oak was no longer alive. The church held a memorial service for the famous white oak, attended by an overflow crowd. For now, the tree remains standing while a special task force decides how to best memorialize it.

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However, the tree is due to come down some time early in 2017, church officials have said.

Holiday events go on at end of year

Even so, holiday events went on at the end of the year. Basking Ridge's long-running Christmas Eve singalong was a success on Dec. 24, with the tree as a quiet witness to a tradition that dates back almost a century.

Across town, another tradition - the lighting of a giant menorah at the Chabad Jewish Center of Basking Ridge on Valley Road - also took place on Dec. 24, the first night of Hanukkah this year. A community party was planned along with with the first night's menorah lighting.

New facilities opened during the year

During 2016, some new facilities opened in the township, whether for recreation or a more practical purpose.

This September's unveiling of the new Tobin Heath soccer field at Pleasant Valley Park brought home Tobin Heath herself, not long after she again was part of this year's summer Olympics competitions in Brazil. 

"Obviously, this is a huge honor," Heath, a 2006 graduate of Ridge High School, said during her comments. "I grew up just a kid with a ball and a dream, and that's what I want this field to be - a place for kids to dream."

With less fanfare, a solar panel field on the township's Pill Hill municipal landfill was finally completed this year, and is expected to bring in about $500,000 in annual income. Another municipal project to come to fruition were the opening of a road salt dome, in conjunction with Somerset County, behind the municipal engineering building.

Following a recent hearing before the Planning Board, the Bernards Township Committee will also further discuss whether to designate the Millington Quarry as a site in need of redevelopment, which would allow the township to cooperate in the planning project. However, a number of township speakers cautioned the Planning Board to require the quarry owners to live up to previous agreements in helping to prepare the quarry land off Stonehouse Road for a new life now that quarrying has ended on the property.

Lifeguard saves child at Pleasant Valley Pool

The Township Committee, which frequently recognizes residents' achievements, in August recognized the quick actions of Brendan Ladd, a lifeguard at Pleasant Valley Pool who had saved a three-year-old from drowning. Ladd said the child had apparently jumped into the 6-foot-deep end of the pool. "He didn't know how deep it was." After Ladd performed several lifesaving techniques, the child recovered completely.

Ladd, a 2015 Ridge High School graduate, said he has been a lifeguard for four years, and had trained at the Somerset Hills YMCA. He had also been a member of the swim team at Ridge.

Two lawsuits over mosque denial

The Township Committee is starting 2017 facing legal costs over two discrimination lawsuits filed during 2016 in response to the Planning Board's December 2015 denial of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge's application to build a 4,250-square-foot mosque in Liberty Corner that would serve about 140 worshippers. 

First, in March, the ISBR and its founder, Ali Chaudry of Basking Ridge, filed a lawsuit in federal court contending that religious discrimination had been the actual basis for the Planning Board's denial of an application that the ISBR repeatedly insisted should easily have met zoning requirements.

Then, before Thanksgiving, the U.S. Justice Department also filed a lawsuit against Bernards Township, alleging that the township violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 when it denied zoning approval to allow the ISBR to build the mosque. That complaint, which was said to have followed an eight-month investigation, was also filed in U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey. 

Finally, right on the last night of 2016, a federal judge sided with the ISBR's contention that the township had discriminated on religious grounds when it set a requirement that the mosque provide about twice the amount of parking that would have been asked for a similarly sized church. 

The township's mayor, Carol Bianchi, issued a statement on New Year's Day that the township "vehemently disagrees" with the judge's ruling and will consider how to be move forward with the case, "including appealing the decision when ripe for appeal." She said the township had only received the 57-page ruling that day, and attorneys would need time for a full analysis. However, she said that such a ruling blocks the township's ability to follow another law allowing parking requirements based on actual estimated parking needs of an institution.

Ridge seeking applicants for new principal of high school

Meanwhile, the Bernards Township Board of Education plans to continue accepting applications into January for a new Ridge High School principal to replace Frank Howlett Jr., who announced he is retiring at end of this school year.

Ridge High School continued to rank high on lists of best high schools in the state and nation, and many school extracurricular activities (including the Ridge Marching Band and Ridge Forensics team) continued to win recognition. Ridge athletics teams continued to score championships and reach state final games: the Ridge girls soccer team advanced before a final defeat at its match against Hunterdon Central for the state Group 4 championship. The Ridge girls cross-country won the Group 4 state championship in November. Among other Ridge athletic championship wins in 2016 was the repeat state championship win for the boys fencing team last February.

The year of 2016 was also marked by the loss of Ridge High School students and also the deaths of some recent Ridge graduates. The Ridge High School community was shaken and saddened in March by the death of Ridge junior Martha Moye, 17, and then was heartbroken again by the death of sophomore Kyra O'Dwyer less than a month ago, in December.

Griffin Madden, 23, a 2011 graduate of Ridge, was remembered with great fondness in the San Francisco Bay area after he was among the dozens of people, including many artists and musicians, who were killed in the Dec. 2 fire in Oakland, California in an illegally-occupied warehouse.

A few months earlier, in September, local friends and family members gathered to mourn Julius Trombino,  23 and a 2012 graduate of Ridge High School. While still at Ridge High School, Trombino established himself as a professional musician while also being an active part of the local music scene. Many of Trombino's music videos are posted on YouTube, and his friends and family have been continuing to spread his life message of "LOVE MORE."

New mayor for 2017

As the Township Committee prepared to meet for its annual reorganization meeting at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 3 at the municipal building at 1 Collyer Lane, Carolyn Gaziano, who previously served a year as mayor and was deputy mayor in 2016, was set to be named township mayor for 2017.