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For Gateway, National Park Service Forming a Vision for the Future

Park officials are working out a new management plan for Sandy Hook and the New York side of popular recreation area.

Sandy Hook Lighthouse.

The National Park Service has visions of Gateway National Recreation Area, which includes Sandy Hook, but needs more public help to bring the colorful images into focus.

In beachside information sessions this month, park employees have been soliciting opinions about the future of Sandy Hook, and Gateway sites across Raritan Bay in Staten Island and Jamaica Bay.

After two years of such chats, as well as more formal planning, the service is closing in on a choice among competing alternatives. That is expected this fall, with public hearings on the preferred plan to follow next year.

There are three different action options: promoting overnight tourism by adding or converting facilities; preserving history and the environment; increasing recreation on the beaches and in the water while adding ferries and expanding recreational facilities and beach amenities.

The proposals, including a form for the public to submit comments, can be viewed on-line.

There is still some fuzziness, especially when it comes to implementation costs, which the published documents omit. That sketchiness has some interested parties in New Jersey taking a hands-off approach until more details emerge.

“It’s really their decision to make,” said Lawrence Ragonese, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection. “I’m sure they’ll talk to us when they’re further along.”

“There is not enough detail or substance to fully understand the impacts to the park from this proposal,” Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said in a statement.

“We have not been asked formally to participate,” said Debbie Mans, director of the Baykeeper of New York and New Jersey. While the planning process represents “a terrific opportunity… unfortunately, most of the attention has been going toward New York,” she said.

Last month, Mayor Michael Bloomberg welcomed Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to announce “cooperative management” of local and federal parklands in and around Gateway’s Jamaica Bay segment. The initiative to add facilities already has attracted a $1.5 million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.

The result will be “restored, resilient natural landscapes, more outdoor recreation, new and cutting-edge research collaborations, and an improved, sustainable transportation framework,” Bloomberg predicted.

Options Vary, Including ‘No Change’

Despite that momentum, Gateway’s new management plan starts with the option of leaving the 40-year-old recreation area unchanged. That is exactly what some visitors have been urging, according to Suzanne McCarthy, Gateway’s deputy superintendent.

“That’s a message I can accept, because it means people are enjoying the park,” she said while greeting the public outside the Sea Gull’s Nest restaurant on Sandy Hook.

From an administrative viewpoint, though, “no change” provides no clue of priorities among a welter of facilities and uses, from water sports to historic buildings to a bird sanctuary. Overseeing disparate activities at separate locations is “like having 50 balls in the air when perhaps we should only have four,” McCarthy said.

With more than 9 million annual visitors -- about 2.5 million to Sandy Hook alone -- Gateway ranks third in the NPS system, behind the Blue Ridge Parkway and Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It is just ahead of the most visited national park, the Great Smoky Mountains.

Even before choosing a new management plan, park officials have been experimenting with moves targeting some segments of their clientele. This month, Gateway began allowing overnight camping at selected locations on all three of its islands, McCarthy noted.

The three action alternatives under consideration for a new management all propose other steps. But each has an umbrella theme “that would carry over through all the units and unify them,” she said.

Designated as options B, C and D put more emphasis on differing elements of the existing sites and programs.

Alternative B, “Discovering Gateway,” would increase access and facilities for tourists as well as day-trippers. It has the advantage of capitalizing on the agreement with New York City, where it envisions a welter of new recreation, community and arts facilities around Jamaica Bay. Similar but smaller development would occur on Staten Island, particularly at Great Kills Park.

Sandy Hook Seen As Tourism Destination

Across the bay on Sandy Hook, though, it stirs up memories of a recent failed effort to turn deteriorating buildings at historic Fort Hancock into a tourist destination.

An almost decade-long deal between the NPS and Rumson developer James Wassel finally unraveled over finances in 2009. While it was in effect, Wassel’s Sandy Hook Partners rehabilitated the chapel, theater and headquarters of the 1874 fort.

But his plan to convert many of the stately officers homes that line Hartshorne Dive along the Bay into bed-and-breakfasts raised fears of over-development and over-commercialization of the historic site.

“Traffic is the No. 1 concern” of people commenting on the Sandy Hook options, McCarthy said. Some of that may be triggered by Alternative B’s promise to make Fort Hancock “a bustling center of activity” with a restaurant and lodging, as well as boardwalks, kayak launches and other facilities around the island.

“We recognize that there’s probably not going to be a lot of money from the Department of the Interior” for any of the plans, McCarthy said. While all depend on finding partners, “we’ll still be calling the shots,” she said.

Alternative B would do the most to make Sandy Hook a year-round tourist destination, according to McCarthy. But the lodgings would be small and geared for a variety of types, such as the campsites just opened, she said.

In contrast, Alternative C, “Experiencing Preserved Places” would emphasize preserving the fort area and providing space for related historical education programs. Buildings at the Cold War Nike missile base would be stabilized, and tours and media would emphasize coastal defense.

Sandy Hook.

Elsewhere on Sandy Hook, new nature trails and observation sites would allow some environmental programs. But recreation would be limited to existing beaches, with more protections for sensitive dunes, marshes and the island’s holly forest.

Sandy Hook’s most historic structure is the 1764 lighthouse, the oldest working lighthouse tower in the nation. At the time it was built, it marked the most reliable channel around the great sand banks that gave the spot its name and were hazards for 18th century shipping. Sedimentation has left it farther inland.

Although Fort Hancock was later built next to the lighthouse, the spot’s most active role in defense came during the Revolution. Sprouting up around the lighthouse, Refugeetown served as a sanctuary for New Jersey loyalists, who fended off raids by patriot militias attempting to damage the light.

Under the guns of the British fleet, Refugeetown provided a base for loyalist regiments throughout the war. They included racially mixed guerrilla units under the runaway slave Colonel Tye and other African-American commanders.

Alternative C also would highlight military and aviation history around Jamaica Bay, particularly ay Floyd Bennett airfield and a Nike site. On Staten Island, it would remove ballfields at Great Kills and restore dunes, beaches and shrublands, while adding an interpretative trail at Fort Wadsworth.

Alternative D, “Connecting Coastlines” would emphasize water-based recreation opportunities, expanded ferry services, water taxis and boat tours among Gateway’s units, as well as emphasizing the marine environment.

Under this plan, Fort Hancock would become a center for maritime-related programs and coastal research. More recreation and camping would be located along the Raritan Bay. On the Oceanside, concessions, picnic facilities and “shade structures” would be added on the beaches.

This option also calls for park management to find partners to become “pro-active in the face of climate change and sea level rise,” an increasing issue for any coastal attraction.

During three decades reporting in New Jersey, Joe Tyrrell has covered everything from Avon to Zarephath, with a particular emphasis on politics and government, the environment and agriculture. He founded the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, which unites civic groups, citizens and journalists to promote transparency and ethics.

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