Within a span of less than four weeks, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a controversial bill passed by the New Jersey Legislature to redevelop Liberty State Park that critics have warned will open the park to privatization.
The bill, titled the Liberty State Park Conservation, Recreation, and Community Inclusion Act, passed through both the Assembly and the Senate on June 29 after changes were made to it.
It will set aside $50 million (originally $250 million) from federal coronavirus relief money for the Department of Environmental Protection to fund a two-year long Design Task Force, which will be in charge of advising the department on short-term actions and a long-term master plan for the state park.
The short-term actions include items “designed to improve public use and enjoyment” of conservation and recreation areas within the park, while the long term master plan includes the improvement of park facilities, programs, and amenities, the creation of new transportation services, and the preservation of the park’s natural resources and wildlife and protection against climate change.
The task force will consist of 23 members (originally slated to be 17). 17 of them can either be themselves of their designee, which includes:
- The DEP Assistant Commissioner for State Parks, Forests, and Historic Sites (currently John Cecil)
- The DEP Administrator of Urban State Parks and Initiatives (currently Craig Dorsett)
- The Liberty State Park Superintendent (currently Robert Rodriguez)
- The DEP’s Office of Natural Resource Restoration Bureau Chief
- The Friends of Liberty State Park President (currently Sam Pesin)
- The president of Liberty State Park for All
- The Jersey City Mayor (currently Steven Fulop)
- The Jersey City Department of Recreation and Youth Development Director (currently Lucinda McLaughlin)
- Hudson County District 3 Commissioner (currently Jerry Walker)
- The Hudson County Division of Parks Chief
- The Jersey City Public Schools Superintendent (currently Dr. Norma Fernandez)
- The NAACP New Jersey State Conference President (currently Richard Smith)
- The NAACP Jersey City President
The six other members of the task force will be members of the public appointed by the the Governor, Senate President and Assembly Speaker, which include Gov. Murphy, Senate President Nicholas Scutari and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin.
The Assistant Commissioner for State Parks, Forests, and Historic Sites or their designee and the Administrator of Urban State Parks and Initiatives or their designee will be the co-chairs of the task force.
Nine months after the enactment of the bill and at least three public meetings, where the public can participate and submit comments, the task force will consider said comments and submit to the DEP their recommendation for a master plan.
Among one of the additions to the bill for the task force is barring the recommendation of a casino in the park and limiting the recommendation of renewable energy facilities to rooftops and parking areas.
After completing the master plan, the DEP will submit a written report to the governor and the state legislature within 45 days on “identifying additional capital funding priorities for the park.”
Warnings of privatization and influence still linger
Since the bill was introduced and fast-tracked, environmental activists such as Sam Pesin have criticized the bill for not having protections that leave the park open to privatization, something that they’ve fought for for years.
One of the concerns of the bill was language that said the master plan would include plans for the DEP “to generate revenue”, something which Pesin warned was a code word for privatization. That part of the bill was removed from the final version.
Another major shadow over the bill are accusations that it was orchestrated by Paul Fireman, the billionaire owner of the nearby Liberty National Golf Course. Fireman has made multiple attempts over the years to acquire Caven Point, a 22-acre migratory bird habitat, to expand said golf course, but has been met with pushback by activists.
From the moment the new bill was introduced, groups tied to Fireman had begun supporting it and promoting their version of a plan for the park.
During one of the Senate committee hearings on the bill, a group called the People’s Park Foundation had presented their vision for a master plan of the park. Among their proposals for the plan include a 150,000-square-foot community center, a 5,000 seat multi-use stadium and a 7,000 seat outdoor amphitheater.
The foundation is partly funded by Fireman, according to Fireman representative Nevins McCann via Politico.
Fliers were also sent out to residents by a group called Liberty State Park for All promoting the People’s Park Foundation. LSPFA’s executive director Arnold Stovell admitted to the Jersey Journal back in 2020 that the group was being funded by Fireman’s charity, the Paul and Phyllis Fireman Charitable Foundation.
While there is a general consensus that the park should have more recreation, environmental activists have pushed back against large scale developments and have asked lawmakers to legislate protections for the park, but a few key lawmakers declined to do so.
State Sen. Brian Stack, who was one of the sponsors of the Senate version of the bill, has announced that he would introduce legislation to protect Caven Point.
Said bill, sponsored by him and state Sen. Sandra Cunnignham, would permanently designated and preserve Caven Point as a natural habitat. An Assembly companion bill was also introduced by Angela McKnight, William Sampson and Annette Chaparro.
It is unknown when action will be taken on the bills as the legislature is on its way out for its summer recess.
(Most of) Hudson County delegation touts signed bill
Despite the criticism about the signed bill, most of the Hudson County delegation have touted it as a way of improving the park.
“For far too long, Liberty State Park has been neglected, and it is time we finally put in the work needed to establish it as the crown jewel of New Jersey’s park system,” said Stack in a statement after the bill was passed yesterday.
“In Hudson County, open space like this is extremely hard to come by, so it is imperative that we ensure this land is being utilized to its full potential,” he continued. “My goal with this bill is that we can create a space for everyone to enjoy, ensuring that all residents will have the opportunity to experience our beautiful Garden State to its fullest capacity.”
McKnight, Sampson and Chaparro, who all sponsored the Assembly version of the bill, said in a joint statement that the park “must continue to be preserved and enriched as a national treasure for the enjoyment of generations to come.”
“This bill would allow us to better preserve the natural, historic, cultural, recreational, and scenic gifts this historical location has to offer,” they said. “The park offers an abundance of beautiful views and free, recreational areas for everyone to enjoy. Families love making memories in Liberty State Park. We must plan for its future to ensure it’s around for the next generation.”
Assemblyman Raj Muhkerji however was the only member of the Hudson County delegation who voted against the bill in the Assembly, after having been vocal about his opposition towards it.
“…I suffer from paranoia informed by decades of struggles by the community against attempts to privatize and commercialize this space treasure and otherwise wrest control of park planning from the public,” he said in a statement earlier this month.