The New Jersey Assembly State and Local Government Committee advanced a bill without amendments allocating $250 million from the NJ Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) for Liberty State Park, with a 17-member task force deciding how to spend it.
By Daniel Ulloa/Hudson County View
“The conversation has become ongoing regarding the bill, and we recognize it’s of tremendous importance to the residents of Jersey City and the entire state. As such, the Senate and the governor’s office are continuing to have discussions on this serious piece of legislation,” Committee Chair Anthony Verrelli (D-15) said.
“I am not for the privatization of Liberty State Park. I want Liberty State Park to continue to be a venue for all walks of life. Community hearings ensuring community involvement is key,” noted Assemblywoman Angela McKnight (D-31).
She is sponsoring Bill A-4264, also known as the Liberty State Park Conservation, Recreation, and Community Inclusion Act, along with Assemblyman Will Sampson (D-31) and Assemblywoman Annette Chaparro (D-33).
Additionally, McKnight noted five million people visit a year for great views of the Statue of Liberty, the bridge to Ellis Island, and the unique sweeping views of New York City.
“This task force is crucial to preserving Liberty State Park. Establishing a task force will ensure the state receive guidance from community stakeholders.”
“We look forward to seeing how this bill moves forward,” Verrelli replied
Hudson County Commissioner Jerry Walker (D-3) said the contaminated area next to the park was not always fenced off.
“When I was a kid, we had access to that area. We used to play in there … You could have Lincoln and Snyder practicing at the same field in Caven Point … We are not for privatizing the park: we just want the park to reflect the whole community,” the former Seton Hall basketball star said.
Ward E Councilman James Solomon, who said yesterday in an email blast that Caven Point should be preserved and that large-scale commercialization should be prohibited, explained his rationale.
“With simple amendments, you can pass a transformative bill. You will confirm our most cynical fears that a billionaire’s voice is more powerful than tens of thousands of voices,” he stated.
“This bill is being pushed by the billionaire owner of the most exclusive golf course in the world. We should be terrified by failing to protect Caven Point in the bill.”
Solomon noted the Jersey City Council passed a resolution that he sponsored in favor of Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-33) Raj Mukerji’s Liberty State Park Protection Act back in 2020.
Mukherji is the lone member of the Hudson County delegation that remains opposed to the current bill.
The downtown councilman also stated that “I don’t have a million dollar lobbying budget” in reference to Liberty National Golf Course owner Paul Fireman, who is widely believed to be the force driving the new bill.
“The overwhelming majority, many tens of thousands of people, have opposed privatization plans. We oppose the bill unless it is merged with protection language in Assemblyman Raj Mukerji’s Protection Act,” exclaimed Friends of Liberty State Park President Sam Pesin.
He said his group has collected 32,000 petition signatures and has 111 groups in their coalition against privatization. 11 advocacy groups also wrote the committee yesterday calling for a bill closer to the LSPPA than what is currently being considered.
Pesin was opposed to the idea of a stadium or a concert venue, but in favor of small-scale commercialization projects. He noted the NJDEP has finalized a plan to create active recreation, and protect nature, and has a budget to fund doing so.
Still, a number of people also continued to speak in favor of the legislation in front of the committee this morning at the two-and-a-half hour hearing in Trenton.
“There are a number of private uses. We’re kind of constrained 200 acres of active park. The interior 250 acres has been fenced off and contaminated since the park’s inception,” attorney Elnardo Webster, of the People’s Park Foundation, remarked
“It’s mind boggling there’s opposition to this conversation. 5,000 is not a lot of seats for a stadium. We don’t have a rec center in Jersey City. We’d like an indoor pool. We’d like an ice rink. We’d like a place for seniors to go and play bingo,” he said to applause.
Liberty State Park for All Executive Director Arnold Stovell said people have been using fear-mongering tactics to keep the contaminated land unused.
“The same individuals say that a billionaire villain is buying a state park to build a golf course is so ridiculous,” Stovell asserted, claiming that the Friends of Liberty State Park have done nothing to improve the park for 40 years.
He also suggested that the DEP could plant hemp to clear the contaminants.
“These sorts of approaches have been used in Europe consistently,” he added.
Former Jersey City Mayor Gerry McCann explained he took the initiative in the 1970s and 1980s to clean up the area.
“I sued the Archdiocese of Newark, which no one would do because they had a landfill fire that burned for 25 years. No one would take on the Catholic Church. I did, and I won,” he recalled.
“They were never around. Where was the Sierra Club? Where was the Baykeeper? Every park in New Jersey, every park, has commercial uses in the park. All the activities are run commercially. We need the money to pay for the protection of the park.”
Furthermore, former Jersey City Superintendent of Schools Franklin Walker said he represented his successor, Dr. Norma Fernandez, in support of the bill to create space for active recreation. He said he grew up playing in contaminated spaces in the area.
“Don’t be surprised if you wake and up and you’re glowing in the dark,” Walker recalled people saying.
Still, others expressed that they weren’t convinced this bill was the best court of action.
“ … This debate is about the elephant in the park and that’s the ongoing effort by Paul Fireman to expand his footprint into Liberty State Park,” stated Environment New Jersey Executive Director Doug O’Malley. “
We encourage each member to work with the sponsor to create permanent protection for Caven Point. The protections for Caven Point should be memorialized in this legislation. This bill also lacks a prohibition on large-scale commercialization.”
Legendary St. Anthony High School Basketball Coach Bob Hurley spoke in favor of a stadium being built.
“There were always two stadiums in the city,” he said, also claiming it was offensive to compare Liberty State Park to Central.
Anjuli Ramos and Jeff Tittel, the current and former state directors of the Sierra Club, gave their take on why this is a bad bill.
“We are in favor of small-scale development like a community center, a rec center, basketball courts. These are exciting developments,” Ramos said.
She said the bill allows for the construction of an arena in which working-class people would not be able to afford tickets, while does not protect Caven Point “at all costs.”
“It should be Liberty State Park for all, not Liberty State Park for Paul,” Tittel quipped.
“$250 million as a blank check is scary. We’ll be buying amenities for Paul Fireman’s hotel and golf course.”
Prior to the vote, Verrelli noted that 319 emails were received opposing the measure.
“This is really about a task force, so all options are discussed. It’s still a work in progress,” Assemblywoman Lisa Swain (D-38) said.
Ultimately, the bill was approved by the committee unanimously (5-0).
Shortly after the hearing had ended, McKnight, Sampson, and Chaparro released a joint statement explaining why they introduced it.
“Liberty State Park is a piece of our State history that we must protect … This bill would allow us to better preserve the natural, historic, cultural, recreational, and scenic gifts this historical location has to offer,” they said.
“The Park offers an abundance of beautiful views and free, recreational areas for everyone to enjoy. Families love making memories in Liberty State Park. We must plan for its future is in place to ensure it’s around for the next generation.”
Conversely, the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters Executive Director Ed Potosnak released a statement indicating this was a step backwards.
“The Assembly State and Local Government Committee missed a chance today to preserve and improve Liberty State Park by passing legislation without amendment that leaves a national treasure at risk of privatization the hands of powerful corporate interests,” he said.
“We stand with Jersey City residents calling for improved park access, increased active recreation opportunities, and remediation of contamination in the interior of the park, and we appreciate the $250 million investments promised in this legislation. But as it currently stands, this legislation risks large-scale privatization of the park …”
The Senate version of the bill, S2807, is sponsored by Brian Stack (D-33), Sandra Cunningham (D-31), and Nick Sacco (D-32), and the measure cleared the Senate Environment and Energy Committee one week ago and it now heads to the full Assembly and Senate.