Despite calls from legislators and open space advocates, Gov. Phil Murphy has signed a three-month budget extension bill including language that could lead to the privatization of parts of state parks like Liberty State Park.
The 111-page measure, which funds the state until Sept. 30, includes a line item on page 95 which would allow the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to solicit companies to make investments in state parks, including through leaseholds.
It states, “On or before September 1, 2020, the Department of Environmental Protection shall issue a solicitation to engage the private for-profit and nonprofit sector in reducing maintenance and capital investment backlog and environmental remediation at state parks in order to facilitate enhanced cultural, recreational, and local economic opportunities for New Jersey residents through appropriate means including leaseholds.”
Advocates for Liberty State Park have been fighting privatization attempts for years. Most recently the owner of the private neighboring Liberty National golf course has sought to place some of its holes on Caven Point, a natural wildlife habitat.
Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club Jeff Tittel said that Gov. Murphy has given the golf course owner a “green light” to move in, and Tittel called on the governor to direct the DEP to prevent giving out leaseholds.
“If he cares about protecting the public trust, then he needs to uphold that public trust,” Tittel said.
State Senator Loretta Weinburg called on Murphy to veto the line item, calling it a “sneaky” attempt to change public policy.
“Advocates have fought for years to keep Liberty State Park free from private development and open to all,” said Senator Weinberg. “They have worked far too hard to have their efforts thwarted by a few lines buried in an emergency, never-before-done budget at the crest of a global pandemic. This was a sneaky, backdoor way to attempt to change important public policy…”
“New Jersey is attempting to navigate entirely uncharted waters and needs to focus on the essential business of keeping people safe, keeping our economy afloat and supporting the people who have been affected the most by this virus,” Weinburg said.
“This was a shameful sleight of hand by a couple of paid lobbyists, and it is simply not how these things should be done – not ever, but certainly not now.”
Senator Brian Stack, Assemblywoman Annette Chaparro, and Assemblyman Raj Mukherji released a joint statement on the language, which they say was sneaked into the bill.
“The irony of sneaking in language compelling the privatization of our state parks in a budget continuance amid a global pandemic is that so many New Jerseyans have found relief in nature, including Liberty State Park and her sister state parks, during the pandemic…Now, more than ever, we must fight to ensure that Liberty State Park remains a free, open, urban green oasis protected from commercialization and privatization,” they said, calling for immediate passage of the Liberty State Park Protection Act (LSPPA).
The act aims to protect the park from privatization, but before the state legislature could adopt the measure, the assembly speaker pulled it from the agenda in January.
The governor’s office said it will work with the DEP to evaluate options that will keep parks accessible for residents.
Despite hearing from some 50 speakers urging the Jersey City Council to adopt a second resolution supporting the LSPPA, last month, the council pulled it from the agenda postponing the vote on the resolution of support until July 15.
This was done primarily at the behest of Ward F Councilman Jermaine Robinson who wanted the opportunity to host a virtual meeting to listen to his residents before casting a vote.