DEP Says It’s Folding Plans to Privatize Liberty State Park

State agency cites stiff opposition to proposal as chief reason for its change of course

liberty state park
The state is dropping its widely opposed plans to privatize portions of Liberty State Park, which had included proposals to build an amusement park, indoor sports arena, and hotel.

Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin dropped the bombshell near the end of a mostly routine hearing before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee yesterday.

“The bottom line is this: We are going to do nothing with the park,’’ he said, when questioned about a much criticized report released last fall on how to commercialize the Jersey City park, the most popular in the state system with more than 4 million visitors annually.

“We are done with Liberty State Park,’’ Martin said, blaming the decision on opposition from the Jersey City mayor, Senate President, Friends of Liberty State Park.

The surprise announcement comes after months of controversy over the Christie administration’s plans for the park, which had been kept under wraps. With the state park system strapped for funds — an issue that came up earlier in the hearing — the administration is developing efforts to add private amenities and events at state-run facilities to make them more self-supporting.

Those plans have come under fire, but most heatedly over proposals at Liberty State Park, an urban facility offering sparse open space to Hudson County residents with awesome views of the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty. Its annual budget is $3.5 million, but only $1.5 million in revenue is now generated by concessions.

“I hope this is the final nail in the coffin for the commercialization of the park,’’ said Sam Pesin, president of Friends of Liberty State Park. “It was a major threat to the park.’’

Citing the public outcry about the plan, Peter Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future, which participated in drafting the report, said “It is clear the people care about their urban open spaces.’’ It was a good decision to stop the process, he added.

Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson), a member of the committee and opponent of the plan, raised the issue with the commissioner, noting the enormous local “pushback.’’ She asked whether the commissioner would hold a public hearing on the proposal.

Martin, clearly frustrated, told the committee he and the department have invested a lot of time, assets and resources into the park. “Everybody piled on; we had no plan,’’ he said, saying the report only laid out options for closing a $2 million annual deficit at the park.

The department will continue to make investments at Liberty State Park, maintain the facility, and reopen the terminal in a few weeks, according to Martin. Otherwise, he said he plans to focus on the other 38 state parks and 800,000 acres the department manages where local officials and friends of the parks are willing to work with the agency.

“That is unfortunate it will end this way,’’ Cunningham said.

In other matters involving state parks, it appears the administration’s plans to divert nearly $20 million from a constitutional amendment dedicating a portion of corporate business taxes to preserving open spaces to pay salaries at DEP-run parks is heading for a court battle.

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex) noted that an opinion from the Office of Legislative Services found the use of the funds to pay those salaries was unconstitutional, which Martin disputed.

Martin said the approval of the ballot question diverted funds away from other department priorities, including water-quality monitoring, cleanup of underground storage tanks, and hazardous-waste management. As a result those programs had to be financed out of the general fund, the commissioner said.

The use of the open-space money to pay park employees salaries is allowed under the ‘’stewardship’’ provisions in the ballot question, Martin said. When Smith raised the prospect of environmentalists challenging that interpretation in court, Martin replied, “We’ll have to wait for the judge to decide.’’

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