State parks privatization to be explored under new NJ budget
TRENTON — Environmentalists say the stopgap budget Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law Tuesday clears a path toward privatizing state parks, including a controversial golf course at Liberty State Park.
The new law says that by Sept. 1, the state Department of Environmental Protection shall solicit proposals for reducing maintenance and capital investment backlog and environmental remediation at state parks from private and nonprofit groups “in order to facilitate enhanced cultural, recreational and local economic opportunities for New Jersey residents through appropriate means including leaseholds.”
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said those are “red flags” for commercial intrusions into lands that are supposed to protected in the public trust.
“It also allows them to lease sections of those parks to these private entities,” Tittel said. “And so the concern is that what they’ve done is they’ve stealthily pushed park privatization in the budget bill when it’s supposed to be about fixing the budget and dealing with the budget shortfalls.”
“What we see hidden in this budget is really a real attack on public lands and public parks,” he said.
Environmentalists said the budget language opens a path for the golf course at Caven Point in Liberty State Park in Jersey City that billionaire Paul Fireman has been seeking to build. Tittel said it may also revive ideas raised and resisted in the past, such as a shopping and food court in Island Beach State Park, conference center and small hotel in Washington Crossing State Park.
“We believe that that language is really opening the door for these – you know, like the golf course at Liberty State Park we’ve been fighting and water parks and hotels and marinas and so many other things that are inappropriate for our parks,” Tittel said.
Most of the attention was focused on the prospect for the golf course at Liberty State Park.
“The obscene giveaway bill language was undemocratically hidden from most legislators but the governor knew full well that he was approving LSP privatization,” said Sam Pesin, president of Friends of Liberty State Park, who condemned Murphy for taking part in “the devious subversion of democracy.”
Murphy spokeswoman Alex Altman said there aren't plans for changes at Liberty State Park.
"The language does not specifically refer to Liberty State Park," Altman said. "The Governor’s Office and Department of Environmental Protection do not intend to do a solicitation for Liberty State Park,”
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, called on Murphy to line-item veto out of the budget the “sneaky, backdoor way to attempt to change important public policy and … a shameful sleight of hand by a couple of paid lobbyists.” So did other lawmakers and the Sierra Club.
“That would be the biggest assault on state parks in, you know, ever if he allows this language to stay the way it is,” TIttel said.
By the time their requests were aired publicly, though, the budget had already been signed.
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Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at email@example.com.