Who should determine what happens in Liberty State Park?
That’s the question at the core of a conflict between Friends of Liberty State Park and their local advocates, and Gov. Christopher Christie and municipal officials in some Meadowlands communities, who are seeking to have park oversight shifted from the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to the newly-constituted Meadowlands Regional Commission the law would create.
Legislation sponsored by state Sen. Nicholas Sacco and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (both (D – 32nd Dist.) and approved by the legislature would combine the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission with the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority in an effort to reduce bureaucracy and associated costs to the state.
The law is desirable to towns in Hudson and Bergen Counties because it would remove an odious tax burden and provide alternative sources of revenue generated by events associated with the Meadowlands Sports Complex.
But Gov. Christie has threatened to veto the legislation unless the law also allows Liberty State Park to be put under the jurisdiction of this new Meadowlands Commission, leading park advocates to suspect that it would expose the park to commercial development.
A few days before Christmas, with Sacco and Prieto’s approval, the governor’s office inserted language into the legislation that would include the park under the new commission’s authority.
“There are a lot of positives in this. I think people need to listen more.” – Michel Gonnelli
Fear of the unknown?
The new Meadowlands Regional Commission would have final control over the park’s preservation and development, similar to the role the current commission has played over the last decade in preserving the Hackensack River estuary.
The 1,200 acre Liberty State Park opened in 1976 and includes views of Manhattan, Ellis Island and The Statue of Liberty. Its location has attracted numerous plans over the years for commercial development, from constructing an amusement park to more recently using portions of the park for a golf course. Friends of Liberty State Park and others have successfully managed to fend off such plans through public protests. But they fear that a change of control would reduce the ability of the public to respond to future schemes.
“If the Meadowlands Commission has control, they can hold an afternoon meeting in the Meadowlands and people won’t be able to respond,” said Sam Pesin, president of the Friends of Liberty State Park. Pesin’s father Morris was an environmentalist, civil rights activist, and founder of the park.
A number of the commissioners that make up 13-member Meadowlands Commission Board are appointees of the governor, and Pesin believes they would be more subject to political pressure than the DEP.
Moving the park from under the authority of the Department of Environmental Protection would be unusual, since all other state parks remain under the DEP.
Also, critics of the law believe the move is designed to position the park for future development for another reason: the Meadowlands Regional Commission would have the ability to issue bonds and raise money for development, and the DEP cannot.
A big political carrot for local towns
The incentive for local towns to support it comes by way of a huge tax break. Currently, towns like Secaucus have to pay millions of dollars annually into a tax sharing pool. Decades ago, the Meadowlands Commission was formed to regulate development along the Hackensack River. Some towns like Secaucus were allowed to develop and built a large tax base, while other towns like Kearny – which hosted regional trash dumps – were not.
The towns allowed to develop are forced to share some of their property tax revenues with towns not allowed to develop. Under the new commission, that formula would be scrapped and revenues to help towns like Kearny would come from money generated by sports and other programs.
Another huge benefit of the legislation would return control over zoning and planning to towns currently overseen by the Meadowlands Commission, which has zoning control over portions of 14 towns, seven in Hudson County, seven in Bergen County. In these areas, the commission has final say over development.
Secaucus Mayor Michael Gonnelli said combining the agencies makes sense because it would give back zoning and planning to the towns. In Secaucus, the commission controls nearly 90 percent of the town.
“We’ve been striving the last five years to combine these two commissions and giving back planning authority to the municipalities,” Gonnelli said. “We believe the tax sharing and planning control by the commission has outlived its purpose. This legislation does both for us. It removes the tax burden and it restores home rule.”
For the state, the legislation makes sense, he said, because it combines two agencies.
“This fits into what Governor Christie is always talking about in streamlining government,” Gonnelli said. “The Liberty State Park is a different issue. I’m sure if I was on the board for the park, I would share their concerns. But I think they are taking things out of context. The park will still be overseen by a state agency with one of its mandates as environmental protection.”
The new combined agency will be designed, he said, to promote tourism and bring people to the area.
“There are a lot of positives in this,” Gonnelli said. “I think people need to listen more.”
Although a lot is being made of Christie’s last minute addition of Liberty State Park into the legislation, Gonnelli believes the governor had input into the bill all along.
“It was very clear from the beginning that if we were going to get this bill passed, the governor would have to be involved in it,” Gonnelli said.
Should parks pay for themselves in some way?
State officials – not speaking for Christie, however – maintain that any development in the park would be related to the park.
But Christie – struggling with huge state budget deficits – has been pushing since 2011 to find ways to make state parks generate revenue to help offset the cost of maintaining them. Christie has been promoting a “Sustainable Parks” initiative in hopes to generated private revenue as investments in parks.
Because Liberty State Park’s location gives it remarkable views of New York Harbor and relatively easy access, advocates fear the state under the new Meadowlands Regional Commission will be unable to resist proposals to develop.
The legislation would give the new Meadowlands Regional Commission almost total power of preservation, development, enhancement or improvements to the park. This includes building or anything related to the park. And it can, according to the language put into the bill by Christie, use any of the plans currently under review by the DEP that may promote expanded and diverse recreational, cultural, and educational opportunities for visitors to Liberty State Park and provide greater access to park facilities.
The Friends of Liberty State Park want that language removed from the bill.
“We do not want an autonomous, politically connected agency to have final say over the park,” Pesin said, noting that there are distinct differences between the DEP and the Meadowlands Commission.
“The DEP always has full public participation, public hearings and public comments,” he said. “This autonomous commission will likely do the minimum and will likely ignore the public.”
The other difference is that Liberty State Park is currently overseen by the DEP’s Division of Parks and Forestry with a mission for responsible stewardship of public land and to protect its free public use, Pesin said.
“The mission of the new commission is to build stadiums and arenas and to commercialize and privatize,” he said. “I oppose sustainable parks. Parks shouldn’t raise revenue. A park should be a park. This is a sacred park. It is scarce open space in an urban environment. More importantly, it is a park located behind The Statue of Liberty, which is the symbol of freedom. This park should be for people not for development. And this bill steals the park for a commission to do whatever they want.”
The Friends of Liberty State Park are not completely against commercial events and supports the two restaurants and the marina that exists there currently. Pesin said they even support short term revenue-generating events such as jazz festivals and occasional concerts. They are even open to using the historic train terminal after hours for some commercial ventures. But he fears that the park will be turned into a performing arts center which will clog up the streets with traffic and make it unusable for visitors to use as a park.
“The buck stops with Gov. Christie,” he said. “We want him to provisionally veto the bill until the Liberty Park language is taken out. We are encouraging our fiends to call governor at (609) 292-6000.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.