The Murphy administration says it has no plans to privatize Liberty State Park, but whether and how extensively it intends to allow the private sector and nonprofit groups to take over portions of other state parks remains uncertain.
In a brouhaha that erupted soon after adoption of a three-month budget extension approved earlier this week, the governor’s office Wednesday tried to distance itself from a one-paragraph provision in the bill that Gov. Phil Murphy signed that suggested the state may begin privatizing parks in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The provision, buried in a 110-page bill that many lawmakers never noticed, is reigniting a long-running dispute over how the state can both maintain and invest in its extensive park system, which has suffered years of funding neglect, in the wake of recurring budget crises.
Pushing back on park privatization
Powerful advocates quickly pushed back. Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and others denounced the move, especially how it affects Liberty State Park. “They (advocates) have worked far too hard to have their efforts thwarted by a few lines buried in an emergency, never-before-done budget at the crest of a global pandemic,’’ Weinberg said in a statement released by the Senate Democratic office.
The governor’s office sought to quash the controversy by issuing a statement that noted the budget language does not specifically affect Liberty State Park, the most popular facility by far in the state park system.
The governor’s office and Department of Environmental Protection do not intend to do a solicitation for Liberty State Park, according to Alex Altman, Murphy’s deputy press secretary. Neither Altman nor the DEP addressed questions whether the solicitations would affect other state parks.
The issue is a sore point for some environmental groups who question why parks and recreational areas largely acquired with taxpayer funds should be privatized by companies seeking to acquire state lands to enhance profits and exclude populations that can no longer afford to visit those facilities.
Liberty State Park advocates argued the provision was pushed by a developer who sought to expand three holes of a neighboring golf course onto Caven Point in the park — a portion of the park conservationists want preserved.
Beyond that, the DEP proposed a plan in 2015 outlining development projects within the park, including an amusement park, hotel and amphitheater — all of which were shelved because of opposition from park advocates and the public.
Greg Remaud, NJ/NY Baykeeper, said the governor’s office statement on Liberty State Park did not go far enough. “Why not say Caven Point is going to stay in the park. Just say no to Caven Point,’’ he argued.
“Our main mission is protecting the park,’’ said Sam Pesin, president of Friends of Liberty State Park. “Public land belongs to the people. It is such wrongheaded thinking that it shouldn’t be our legacy to the future.’’
“Our parks should not be leased out for commercial use or to corporate interests,’’ agreed Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “We don’t know what kind of revenues the state will make under those leases.’’
The state would have to protect the park in Jersey City from being privatized under a bill that passed the Senate, but died in the Assembly when it failed to act on it during the last days of the lame-duck session.
Since the appropriations bill was signed just yesterday, the DEP will evaluate all options and ensure that New Jersey’s parks remain an accessible resource for residents, according to an agency spokesman.