Today, the 21 acres of Caven Point is a sanctuary for migratory birds, a pristine place where New Jerseyans gather to catch a glimpse of the peregrine falcon, the yellow-crowned night-heron, or the snowy owl.
But because Gov. Murphy has decided to collaborate with plutocrats who believe that the public interest can be sold, this corner of Liberty State Park may soon be populated by — mirabile visu! —hideously-dressed millionaires clutching their 3-irons and whacking their double bogeys.
If that sounds like an odd tradeoff — screwing 500,000 park visitors a year to benefit a few golfers — yes, that’s essentially the entire plan.
Channeling his inner Christie, Murphy signed a three-month budget Tuesday that includes language allowing private entities to lease New Jersey’s parks for development “to facilitate enhanced cultural, recreational and local economic opportunities.”
How magnanimous of them.
Many lawmakers who voted for the budget weren’t even aware of the surreptitious language, which was designed to give sneaker billionaire Paul Fireman another crack at stealing the marshy peninsula at Caven Point so that it could be converted into three new holes for his golf course. That is nearly one million square feet of waterfront real estate that the public and wildlife would never get back.
So the people elected to uphold the public interest just let it happen, caving to Fireman’s lobbyists and formidable wallet. There is plenty of blame to go around, but start with Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex), who refused to post the Liberty State Park Protection Act for an Assembly vote during lame duck; and Senate Budget chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), an outspoken development advocate whose colleagues — Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg among them — accuse of sneaking the language into the budget without proper debate.
But our inscrutable governor presides over this ceremony of deceit.
For starters, it’s hard to understand how in our state’s moment of crisis — with families struggling, schools shuttered, and kids going hungry – that the reconfiguration of a golf course is a priority. The governor should be ashamed of allowing park privatization into any budget, much less this one.
“Fireman is going to further his own interests — that’s what he does,” says Jersey City Major Steve Fulop. “But the blame goes entirely on Phil Murphy. He is tasked with protecting the public interest, and the fact that he knew about this and signed it anyway should be very problematic for everybody.
“To use the pandemic as a smokescreen and circumvent the budget process is a bigger problem. This compromises a lot of trust and good will he built over the last couple of months.”
Weinberg sees it like this: “To allow a couple of paid lobbyists to get special-interest wording in a budget at a time like this — just to help out a billionaire — is just so disrespectful to the residents of this state,” she says. “I went on a search to find out how this language was put in at the last minute, and I can’t find anybody who’s innocent.”
For his part, Sarlo asserts that “nothing in the budget bill privatizes or sells a single square foot of any park property,” but he also believes that the state’s park-goers “desire capital upgrades.”
And after setting everyone’s hair is on fire, Murphy issued a tepid statement that said the Department of Environmental Protection would not take solicitations for Liberty State Park. Still, he passed up the chance to line-item veto the language and passed it up, and nothing would stop his successor from giving the DEP the green light.
He must not let it get that far. The governor should ensure that the language is erased from the 9-month budget the Legislature will adopt in October, and he should affirm publicly that the interests of a few gilded duffers who pay a half-million for their club memberships don’t measure up to the needs of a half-million park denizens.
Then Murphy should throw his support behind the Liberty State Park Protection Act, which would slam the door at last on the infatuation with privatization that benefits the very few.