After the city filed suit to halt the construction of a controversial marina at the south end of Liberty State Park, Hudson County Superior Court Judge Barry P. Sarkasian has issued a temporary restraining order until Jan. 16, when the city can make its case against the project.
Governor-Elect Phil Murphy told the city, meanwhile, that he also opposes the project, which could mean local activists have again defeated attempts to privatize portions of the park.
Mayor Steven Fulop announced on Jan. 2 that the city filed suit to halt the marina, which the state Department of Environmental Protection wants to allow at Liberty State Park.
The city not only sought a temporary injunction on the project, but hopes to get a Superior Court to void any agreements now in place and force the state to do a more formal bidding process.
Two years ago, Fulop supported the Friends of Liberty State Park, environmentalists, and concerned citizens opposed to a larger redevelopment plan for Liberty State Park. Using the leverage of public opinion, Fulop and others forced Gov. Christopher Christie to withdraw the plan.
“This is land that was set aside for future generations, to be held in sacred trust for the people,” said Jeff Tittle, of New Jersey Sierra Club. “This was not set aside for supersized yachts.”
In a move that some believe may be retaliation for that earlier setback, the DEP has put the new project on the fast track to convert decaying jetties along the south end of the park into slips for luxury yachts.
Unable to force the state to withdraw this plan through a series of public protests, the city – along with environmental groups – has turned to the courts to delay the implementation of the project, and possibly get a court order to void a lease agreement that would sidestep normal regulatory processes.
The DEP hopes to extend the lease of Suntex Marinas, a Texas-based company that currently operates the marina on the north end of Liberty State Park. Under the current 25-year lease, Suntex has exclusive rights to all marinas in the park.
But Fulop and park supporters claim that extension of the lease for construction of a marina at the south end constitutes a new project and should be bid out. The DEP, on the other hand, is allowing the new construction as part of a lease extension, a tactic which avoids having to take bids from other possible companies.
Deal would rebuild deteriorated portions of the park
The DEP, which oversees the park through its Forestry Division, said the lease agreement will cover some of the cost of repairing dilapidated bulkheads on the southern end of the part at a cost estimated to be about $43 million.
But environmentalists say the Christie Administration took money dedicated for their restoration from the park to divert it to other parts of the state budget. The state was supposed to repair the jetties and leave them public.
To make up for this, Christie has proposed privatizing and developing portions of Liberty State Park in order to make them pay for their own upkeep.
Privatization like the construction of the marina would limit the ability of the general public to enjoy the park, advocates claim, and they say maintaining the parks is the responsibility of the state, not private developers.
The DEP under Christie, critics say, has become a tool for redevelopment rather than preservation, and advocates call that a betrayal of the public trust.
A lucrative deal?
Suntex would pay about $25 million towards the repair and pay the state $900,000 in rent for the first three years of a 50 year lease, with potential annual increases of $150,000 to $250,000 after that.
As part of the new agreement, Suntex would develop 45 acres on the south end of Liberty State Park for a 300-slip marina, and would get another ten acre expansion on its northern facility.
In December, the Fulop Administration entered into an agreement with the firm Riker Danzig, Scherer, Hyland, & Perretti, LLP to explore legal options for preventing the development of the ‘Millionaire’s Marina’.
City officials, Friends of Liberty State Park, and environmental groups claim the proposed development is being rushed through as a final act of the Christie Administration. Some believe it is in revenge for these groups stopping a much larger redevelopment of the park in 2016.
Opponents of the project include Fulop, members of the Jersey City Council, a number of Hudson County state legislators, Sam Pesin the president of the Friends of Liberty State Park, Debbie Mans of NY/NJ Baykeeper, Greg Remaud of NY/NJ Baykeeper, Jeff Tittle of New Jersey Sierra Club, Captain Bill Sheehan of The Hackensack Riverkeeper and Eric Stiles of the New Jersey Audubon Society
The irony is that if the lawsuit fails and the new governor does not intervene, the DEP will push to continue the marina even though public opinion is opposed, and even though there is a new governor.
If not stopped, advocates say, the general public will be deprived of the use of a significant part of the park they now have access to, and the southern and northern portions of the waterway will serve only wealthy people
Although Gov. Christie will leave office this month, the DEP will continue to move ahead with the project unless told to stop, and the suit as well as public outcry are designed to alert the new governor to the problem.
The legal effort by the city hopes to delay the implementation of the project long enough for the new governor to take office. If unsuccessful, the city has other options, which will be more time consuming and costly. Murphy told the city he would oppose the project, which could mean the project will not move forward, even if the courts do not void the contract.
The project still has a number of regulatory hurdles it must go through, including two public hearings as well as other environmental approvals.
The next step is a public information session Suntex must host at Liberty State Park in the next month.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.