Thus far, 2021 has been tricky to negotiate for Jersey City’s environmental advocates. The proposed Harsimus Embankment park remains tied up in legal red tape. Plans to build a bike and pedestrian greenway from Jersey City to the Delaware River will be doomed by year’s end absent a strong endorsement by Governor Murphy.
But perhaps most concerning to local activists is that Liberty State Park, the 600-acre “jewel” of New Jersey’s state parks system with an estimated 5 million visitors annually, may succumb to privatization and lose Caven Point, a 22-acre wildlife sanctuary that is home to wetlands, 100 species of migratory birds, and a pristine beach.
The Friends of Liberty State Park (FOLSP), founded in 1988 as an advocacy group for the park, and its president Sam Pesin are in a pitched battle with a group called “Liberty Park For ALL (LPFA)” over a bill pending before the State Legislature known as the Liberty State Park Protection Act, which LPFA has dubbed the “Liberty Park Deception Act.”
Last month, an estimated 250 people, including local politicians, converged on Liberty State Park to support passage of the Act. Not far away, LPFA led a much smaller “counter protest” featuring sports luminaries Elnardo Webster and Bob Hurley to talk up the virtues of providing more active recreation opportunities within the park.
The group handed out literature claiming that the legislation would unfairly “prohibit large-scale recreation projects that our families embraced during public meetings over the last year.”
Speakers at the pro-Protection Act rally were having none of it. Lincoln High School Principal and Council-at-large Candidate Chris Gadsden told the crowd that “active recreation will take place” in the park. Gadsden further lamented that, in his view, Fireman had “singlehandedly divided the Black community.”
For several years, billionaire businessman Paul Fireman, a former Reebok chairman/CEO and a co-developer of Liberty National Golf Course, has lobbied to convert a wildlife sanctuary within the park known as Caven Point, to several additional holes of Liberty National.
In an interview last year, LPFA executive director Arnold Stovell admitted that his organization was funded by the Fireman Foundation.
Pesin labels the LPFA “a phony front group” for Fireman that is “defiling this park with lies. Liberty Park is for all right now, and that’s how we want to keep it.”
Pesin says the Friends also favor active recreation for the park but not the type of activity he believes Fireman wants to incorporate by expanding the golf course to Caven Point, a natural habitat for 100 species of migratory birds.
The Liberty State Park Protection Act, which has stalled in committee for nearly two years, would:
- Prohibit the state Department of Environmental Protection “from conveying, leasing, or otherwise transferring any property rights within the 235-acre natural restoration area in the interior of Liberty State Park and the Caven Point Peninsula.”
- Create a nine-member Liberty State Park Advisory Committee that the DEP would have to consult to review any proposed changes to the park’s management or proposed transfer of property rights of any portion of the park.
- Limit any deals involving transfer of property rights to private entities for “small-scale commercial activities” such as bike or kayak rentals, food concessions, a temporary winter skating rink, commercial boat tours operating from an existing boat slip, use of the historic Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal, “or other use identified in the management plan” to be developed within five years after the bill’s passage.
- Compel DEP, before authorizing any lease or property transfer “of any portion of Liberty State Park with a term of one year or longer,” to submit the proposal to the advisory committee for review and recommendations, “provide for a 30-day public comment period, and hold at least two public hearings” before acting.
- Prohibit the Liberty Science Center and any “existing marina” bordering the park from expanding beyond their footprints of operation existing at the time of the bill’s passage.
- Call for the advisory committee to advise DEP on the ecological restoration of the 235-acre interior portion of the park (now closed to the public), on strategies to increase public access to the park, and on reviewing leases of park property.
DEP plans to dedicate 180 acres in the uplands forest section to passive recreation with a saltwater marsh, tidal channel, and freshwater wetlands.
For active recreation, it will reserve 50 acres in the southwest edge of the interior plus 10.75 acres just outside the interior, including four-and-a-half acres along Freedom Way, four-and-a-half acres along Jersey Avenue, and two acres near the old private cabana club on Morris Pesin Drive.
Despite the assurances of public input into proposed changes in the park’s use, LPFA pamphlets distributed at the counter recent rally say the bill “eliminates our community’s seat at the table” in favor of “an exclusive Liberty State Park Advisory Committee” that DEP must consult “when making all major decisions.”
This advisory committee, the LPFA says, “represents the same group of non-inclusive special interests that have left Liberty State Park and our community [in Greenville and Bergen-Lafayette] behind for decades through broken promises — no cleanup [of the 235-acre interior], no access [to the closed-off interior], no opportunities, no programs.”
“Make the park a destination weekend for families by having active recreation areas,” said Hurley. Practice soccer fields, a football field or multi-purpose fields would be essential because “there are nowhere enough fields in the city,” he added. A cross-country path connecting both ends of the park through the middle of its interior could also work, he said.
During public comment sessions DEP hosted on Zoom, Webster said, “Jersey City should have world-class playing fields” within the confines of Liberty State Park. Seeing birds in protected estuaries are fine, he said, “but this park has some 240 acres that are not being used. That’s unfathomable.” Webster called the LSP Protection Act a “flawed piece of legislation” and “racially insensitive” to the needs of the neighboring largely minority community. He said that community was “in active discussions for funding active recreation in the park” with public and private sources.
Stovell said he’d like to see “local entrepreneurship” participate in the overall planning and execution of improvements in the park, and Bruce Alston, a local activist, endorsed the idea of “more active recreation in an urban park” and commended the Fireman Foundation and Liberty National Golf Course (which abuts the park) for their efforts on behalf of the park.
Fireman had hoped to expand his club by destroying the Caven Point wetlands and building three new holes of golf in their place. However, after FOLSP raised a public furor over the plan, Fireman issued a statement in July 2020 saying he’d back away from it, a claim Pesin suspects is bogus.
“Those who do not want to empower minority communities are using me in an effort to distract from the real issue of who gets to make decisions [about the park],” Fireman said. ‘I am [withdrawing the golf expansion plan] to force the supporters of the Liberty State Park Protection Act to address the social justice problems connected to Liberty State Park without using me as an excuse to keep ignoring minority communities.”
Pesin also points out that following a series of public meetings, the DEP announced that it would dedicate 61 acres of park land to active recreation.
Act sponsor Assemblyman Raj Mukherji has said that he will make an amendment to add social justice nonprofit groups to the advisory committee on the Protection Act.
Fireman has accused Pesin and the Friends of sidestepping the need to clean up the environmentally compromised 235-acre interior of the park to make the land safely available to nearby “minority communities” for playing fields, picnic areas, and more, along with ways of making public access to the park easier.
Pesin says he and the Friends welcome DEP’s plan for “the standard protective remediation” of historic landfill that dominates the park’s interior. DEP plans to install a one-foot dirt cap across the entire surface of the interior to contain “a low level of contamination” from construction debris that was created when the area was converted to a park in the 1970s. DEP hopes to tap funds captured from environmental polluters in court settlements to pay for the cleanup.
Additionally, DEP has already secured a financial pledge from Honeywell to pay for separate remediation of hexavalent chromium that was found along a sewer line in the park’s interior.
No cost projections have yet been provided for either cleanup phase. Some remediation work could start as early as late this fall or early winter, one DEP officlal said.
At a Friends rally held at the park Sept. 26, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop said he welcomed the opportunity for a “healthy conversation around recreation” at the park.
At the same time, the mayor said, “We don’t want to be here every year or every six months fighting for the preservation of this park. We want the governor to sign that bill (Liberty State Park Protection Act). … We will do everything in our power to make sure this park never becomes privatized.”
Added Pesin, “Governor, support the Protection Act. End your silence. Say no to billionaire Fireman. What are you waiting for?”
This article was updated Sunday, Oct. 17 at 10:50 a.m.
Photo by Ron Leir