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Sandy Hook Redevelopment Plans Shelved Until Early Next Year

Joe Tyrrell | December 10, 2012

Despite major cleanup and rebuilding after namesake hurricane, park officials are looking to reopen by Memorial Day.

In another example of Hurricane Sandy’s far-reaching impact, plans for revitalizing the federal Gateway National Recreation Area -- specifically, the Sandy Hook peninsula -- have been put on hold until February.

The storm’s timing upset planning for the future of the recreation area, which includes large sites on Staten Island and Long Island. Administrators were in the process of choosing a new direction for Gateway after presenting several alternatives to the public earlier in the year.

They expected to announce their preferred choice this month, with hearings early next year. Sandy not only delayed that schedule, but also may lead to some modifications in the proposal.

Meanwhile, National Park Service officials today said they hoped Sandy Hook would be ready to receive visitors several weeks before the start of summer. “We’re targeting Memorial Day” for the potential reopening, said Reina Becnel, public affairs director for Gateway National Recreation Area, “but there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Some portions of Gateway, which encircles eastern Raritan Bay, already have reopened in the wake of superstorm Sandy. But the hook, a lower-lying spit of land pointing north from the Highlands, was severely damaged by the storm, officials said.

“We don’t know what the impact of Sandy will be on the general management plan,” Becnel said, adding that the NPS will not be able to “revisit” the document until early February.

“We’re still in emergency stabilization right now, she said.

A tidal surge at least 13 feet high -- the point at which the gauge broke -- swept the seven-mile-long peninsula, washing away a concert stage and pavement, flooding other facilities, and leaving sand dunes in parking lots and along roads.

Monmouth County’s vocational Marine Academy was relocated to a school in Keyport after its Sandy Hook facilities were swamped. The academy was operating in portions of old Fort Hancock near the tip of the peninsula.

The old fort figures prominently in some of the proposals for the future direction of Sandy Hook. One of the alternatives under consideration calls for commercial activity in some buildings, such as some of officers’ houses that line the bayshore west of the sandy Hook Lighthouse.

That alternative, a scaled-down version of a failed redevelopment plan for the buildings, is one of a number of ideas that would involve partnerships between the Park Service and commercial or nonprofit organizations.

Another plan would increase the use of restored park facilities for educational programs and historical or cultural exhibits. A third would add more recreational activities in beach areas and bring more water-borne visitors to the area.

The park service also asked the public to comment on the possibility of making no changes in operations. But at public presentations over the summer, Suzanne McCarthy, Gateway’s assistant superintendent, described that as unlikely. NPS officials were looking for more “direction” for an area that is geographically spread and includes a variety of different activities, she said.

Even before Sandy struck, though, Gateway officials were not expecting much additional federal cash to implement changes. In post-storm discussions, repairs and analyses likely would cause “some further consideration” and delay the process, Becnel said. Part of that assessment is the cost of converting damaged areas to other uses.

The Park Service has reopened several New York sites within the recreation area, notably the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, although debris removal continues in the vicinity and a boardwalk must be replaced.

Other sections open to the public are Great Kills Park on Staten Island, which suffered little damage overall but saw its marina washed away, and Hamilton Beach and Frank Charles Park in Queens. Other portions of the recreation area, such as Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field, are being used as staging and debris removal areas for the massive cleanup.

But Sandy Hook lost water and sewer service as well as electrical power. Park employees who live on the hook have been relocated to temporary quarters, officials said.

Ongoing work includes the restoration of potable water supplies, as well as coping with some unique hazards. Planning includes safety meetings on the possibility of unexploded ordinance washed ashore from long-past munitions tests.

About the only feature that park officials reported in “good shape” is the historic lighthouse, which dates to 1764 and is the oldest working lighthouse in the United States. Work crews have been clearing debris from the area.

While bad news for its Monmouth County environs, the prolonged closure did not come as a surprise. Gateway has turned away visitors since the aftermath of the October 29-30 storm, which shattered Jersey Shore communities, damaged many inland areas, and swamped portions of New York City.

Last week, the park service confirmed that an upstream icon, the Statue of Liberty, came through Sandy unscathed, but will remain closed for what is expected to be months of repairs to other facilities on Liberty and Ellis islands.

While portions of New Jersey’s Liberty State Park have been reopened, most of it remains off-limits to visitors.

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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