The Wild Acreage in Liberty State Park at Center of Preservation Battle

Proposal for a three-hole golf course expansion pits birders against a billionaire

The peninsula jutting into New York Harbor looks more like a wild stretch of beach in Cape May, a serene oasis with lapping waves just three miles from downtown Jersey City, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty.

But it’s also the focus of a battle pitting birders, preservationists and some elected officials against billionaire Paul Fireman, who wants the 21-acre Caven Point parcel for a three-hole expansion of his golf club, the exclusive Liberty National Golf Course, which sits right next door.

Part of Liberty State Park, the Caven Point property sits between the golf course — a frequent stop on the PGA tour, where television cameras routinely pan out to breathtaking vistas of the New York City skyline — and the harbor shoreline.

It’s also a magnet for people and wildlife.

A birder’s delight

“I’m a birder, and I’ve seen snowy owls here, hawks and last week we saw a snow bunting,” said Rick Cordner. “It’s just a special place.”

Jersey City resident K. Sherbutdjian is also a fan.

“You wouldn’t expect to find something like this so close to the city, and yet, it’s right there,” he said. “It’s not all about money and developers, and it shouldn’t be.”

A bill now awaiting a vote in the lame-duck session of the state Legislature would preserve all 1,200 acres of Liberty State Park. Fireman, a prolific political donor to New Jersey lawmakers, wants the bill amended to allow the Caven Point tract to be developed for his golf club.

In return, Fireman says he will upgrade picnic areas, provide jitney service and allow public access to a sliver of Caven Point beach. In addition, he’ll host the PGA’s First Tee golf and scholarship program for urban kids at his club.

Liberty National is also circulating a petition that promises millions for environmental remediation of Caven Point but makes no mention of golf course expansion.

In a letter, the state NAACP welcomed Fireman’s offer, stating that preserving the park as-is “… does not present any of these kinds of opportunities. It is shortchanging the region’s communities of color.”

Charge of destroying the habitat

“This is very frustrating,” said Sam Pesin of Friends of Liberty State Park. “This bill would have been on the governor’s desk right now, would have been voted on two days ago, if it wasn’t for this billionaire wanting to lease away and destroy the Liberty Park Caven Point habitat.”

Pesin and others have waged a long battle against developers who for 40 years have pushed to build on this prime piece of waterfront real estate, proposing everything from an amusement part to a marina for millionaires.

“We’ve already compromised,” said Eric Stiles, president of the state Audubon Society. “Most of Jersey City has already been developed. There are few places that are left that can be enjoyed by millions of visitors and residents.”

A spokesman for Liberty National, Chris Donnelly said “… a contaminated, largely inaccessible area at Caven Point can undergo an environmental clean-up and remain green space through light recreational use of three golf holes that will be wildlife friendly. The cleaning and reuse of the site will create an economic engine to support the Park.”

Critics of Fireman’s plan say kids need Caven Point as it is, undisturbed.

“It’s protected because it’s important urban habitat that 5,000 kids a year go out to see nature when they wouldn’t otherwise, so it’s really just not for sale,” said Greg Remaud of New York New Jersey Baykeeper. “If you want to donate and help kids, why ask for 21 acres to do it? Why not just go ahead and help them out and help those kids and build the First Tee Academy? It doesn’t cost that much.”

Both sides met Wednesday seeking a compromise with one of the preservation bill’s sponsors, state Sen. Sandra Cunningham, a Hudson County Democrat.

“I think that this park is pretty much meant to be a place that people can come to and sit, and think, and talk, and run in the park, and just be a little place, a little island, in which people can come and relax,” she said.

No resolution was reached. Cunningham said another meeting is planned for next week.