Liberty State Park to Highest Bidder?

New language in state bill could change park’s control

Note: This post was updated on Jan 6 at 4:00 pm.

In late December, a quiet surprise was left for Jersey City, but it didn’t come from Santa Claus. In fact, no one is claiming responsibility. But language added at the last minute to a bill awaiting Governor Christie’s signature would shift oversight of Liberty State Park from the Department of Environmental Protection to the newly formed Meadowlands Regional Commission. Critics believe the purpose of this change is to open up the public park to private development.

When introduced in the state assembly on December 15, the bill did not include any language about Liberty State Park. Rather, it had two main goals. One: To merge the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (tasked with planning and zoning in a 30.4-square-mile region overlapping Bergen and Hudson Counties) with the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. Two: The bill also revised a tax-sharing plan in which seven municipalities paid a fee that was then divvied up among seven other municipalities, including Jersey City. (The recipient towns are being compensated for not being allowed to develop in the Meadowlands.) According to the bill, the seven paying municipalities would no longer have to contribute to the program; those funds would be replaced by a new 3-percent hotel tax.

But in the week before Christmas, a new paragraph mysteriously appeared in the bill. It read, in part, that the new commission would “evaluate, approve and implement any plan or plans for the further preservation, development, enhancement or improvement of Liberty State Park.” Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, the bill’s primary sponsor, claims the added language is no cause for alarm. However, when requested by The Record, a spokesperson for Prieto did not reveal the controversial paragraph’s origin.

One person who feels the new language may not be so innocent is Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, “This park has been a jewel for the state of New Jersey,” stated Fulop, “Any formal steps to attempt to privatize would be a black eye for our entire state and all of our residents.”

Particularly outraged by the possible shift in park authority is the 800-member-strong advocacy group, the Friends of Liberty State Park (FOLSP). In a press release, the FOLSP state that the Meadowlands Regional Commission “will be pressured by developers, promoters, and misguided officials to turn Liberty State Park into a commercial venue cash cow to raise revenue, and will ignore Liberty State Park’s true purpose as a free park, for the quality of life for urban people, and the free enjoyment by visitors from around New Jersey and our nation.”

Sam Pesin, president of the Friends of Liberty State Park, spoke with Speaker Prieto, but came away unsatisfied. Pesin urges local residents to “please call the Governor at 609.292.6000, asking to conditionally veto the Hackensack Meadowlands Consolidation Act until the Liberty State Park language is removed.”

The FOLSP are fighting a simultaneous battle on a second front, regarding state ballot measure public question 2. According to the FOLSP, current language in the ballot measure will cause serious harm not just to Liberty State Park, but all state parks and forests. Namely, they will lose lease and concession funds, which the FOLSP say will have a hugely negative impact on parks’ future sustainability, operations, and improvement. On this matter, the FOLSP urge concerned residents to e-mail Committee Aides Judith L. Horowitz and Michael R. Molimock at OLSAideSEN(at)njleg.org. Public comments will only be accepted until Thursday, January 8 at 5 pm, so time is of the essence.

Sam Pesin has a life-long commitment to Liberty State Park; his father, Morris, was the park’s founder, and doggedly fought development at every turn. “It’s a priceless treasure,” Pesin says of the park. “Urban open space, is as sacred as it is scarce.”

JCI file photo by Steve Gold

Jack Silbert

is a writer, editor, internet-radio DJ and occasional emcee. He is the author of several books and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, New York Press, New Jersey Monthly, Weird NJ, and other publications. Jack’s humorous ramblings can be found at Salt In Wound.