Measure to Preserve Liberty State Park Moves Forward in Senate

Tom Johnson | December 6, 2019 | Energy & Environment
Debate continues over possible expansion of golf course there in exchange for developer cleaning up contaminated 20-acre site
Credit: Shinya Suzuki/Flickr
Liberty State Park

A bill aimed at preserving Liberty State Park more or less as it is today cleared a Senate committee yesterday despite intense lobbying over the potential expansion of a golf course there.

A wide coalition of conservationists and the Friends of Liberty State Park championed the legislation (S-3357), which the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee approved, largely in a vote along partisan lines.

The debate over how to best preserve the state’s most popular park is a recurring one, as advocates have waged a continuing battle over proposals to privatize some aspects of the 1,200-acre facility with a stunning view of the New York City skyline.

“The move to expand a nearby golf course into the park underscores the importance of this legislation in protecting Liberty State Park, and I look forward to meeting with those who took issue with this bill,’’ said Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson), the bill’s sponsor.

Liberty National Golf Course is seeking to lease a small undeveloped 20-acre tract on the water to expand the course by three holes, according to Eric Shuffler, a lobbyist for the facility. In exchange, the developer, billionaire Paul Fireman, proposed cleaning up the contaminated site, known as Caven Point, investing in other areas in the park, and creating recurring revenues that would sustain the park.

Some conservation groups oppose the offer, but legislators on the committee extracted a commitment from Sam Pesin, president of Friends of Liberty State Park, to sit down and talk with the developer.

‘A big opportunity’

Sen. Paul Sarlo, a Democrat from Bergen County who chairs the committee, praised the developer’s offer and urged Pesin and others to consider it. “By walking away from this big opportunity, we’re not doing the right thing,’’ said Sarlo, who abstained when the bill came up for a vote in the committee.

The bill aims to protect the park from any future effort to commercialize or privatize what Pesin described as “priceless public land.’’ Under the bill, the state Department of Environmental Protection could approve a concession, conveyance, lease or other agreement with a private entity to provide small-scale commercial activities.

Whether the expansion of the golf course into Caven Point, an undeveloped parcel on the waterfront favored by hikers, birders and fishermen, would fit under that definition remains to be seen.

“This was a win today, but we still have a big fight ahead of us,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. Within three years of enactment of the bill, DEP would have to develop a management plan for the park.

“We are not asking for any money,’’ added Greg Remaud, NY/NJ Baykeeper. “Liberty State Park should have the same protections as any other state park. It should be free and open to the people.’’

In the past, a private golf course, waterpark and motorcross stadium have all been proposed for the park, all of which park advocates have beaten back. They said they would back small-scale proposals, like a café in the old railroad terminal, boat and kayak rentals.

The legislation now goes before the full Senate for consideration.