By Jeff Tittel
Director, New Jersey Chapter of the Sierra Club
The National Park Service recently held a public meeting on its latest privatization plan for Fort Hancock’s “Officer’s Row” at Sandy Hook by leasing some buildings for 60 years to a private developer who wants to divide them for up to 90 residential units. The New Jersey Sierra Club and Congressman Pallone are against this privatization project.
Manhattan-based Stillman Development International wants to lease and develop rental units in “Officers Row,” a promenade of stately historic officers’ quarters overlooking Sandy Hook Bay. Gateway Superintendent Jennifer Neresian, according to the Asbury Park Press, said they are “extremely pleased” to be working with Stillman on a “nationally significant project.” She did not explain why private residences should be built in a National Park
Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, spoke against the privatization plan. “Stillman’s proposal for a private gated community inside one of New Jersey’s most visited parks is outrageous. This project is another example of our government giving away public land for private and commercial purposes.”
The Sierra Club strongly opposes any effort on the part of the NPS to enter into a privatization contract. “Instead of giving away our national heritage to private developers, “Tittel said, “we need to look at other alternatives to repair Fort Hancock. We need to protect the interests of the public.”
We are reaching out to all our Sierra members to oppose this proposal, not just to protect Sandy Hook but to protect all federal parks. Start by calling Congressman Pallone at Long Branch 732-571-1140 or DC 202-225-4671 and thanking him for his opposition to the plan. Then please call the NPS at Sandy Hook 732-872-5970, ask for the manager/superintendent. Then tell them that their plan is outrageous and that you oppose any private development at Sandy Hook.
A decade ago, the NPS proposed a privatization and commercialization plan that was opposed by Congress Frank Pallone, an organization of local residents, and the Asbury Park Press, who all fought that plan for 10 years before it collapsed of its own weight. In one of its editorials, The Press even accused the NPS of "almost criminal neglect" for allowing the Fort buildings to deteriorate from the day the NPS took over Sandy Hook.
Addressing the current privatization plan, Tittel said "We stand -- again -- with Congressman Pallone’s opposition to Stillman’s development proposal. If you lease out any buildings, you are restricting access to the public. Not everyone can afford to go to Yosemite National Park, but we can go to Sandy Hook."
Sandy Hook has been plagued with storms long before the Dutch first settled in the area, and climate change is expected to make flooding even worse. After Hurricane Sandy, for example, the entire park had to be completely closed. All Fort Hancock’s buildings except two were damaged, and almost all the porches on “Officers’ Row” were destroyed and interiors flooded. The NPS headquarters has been abandoned to this day because of flooding, and even the Coast Guard at the tip of Sandy Hook had to relocate after the storm until it built an elevated, flood-proof headquarters.
Hurricane Sandy destroyed both above ground and buried electrical power and telephone lines, clogged water and sewer pipes with sand, made sand-blocked roads impassable, destroyed equipment, and knocked out for almost a year an ancient Army sewage treatment plant.
Tittel noted that Stillman doesn’t plan to build new utility structures. He will tap into existing utilities -- sewers, storm water drains, electrical power and communications cable. The proposal also did not mention handling waste services. According to the proposal, at least 45 apartments in what is known as the Lieutenant’s Quarter’s will be leased for $2,100 a month, and 30 or so apartments in the Captain’s Quarter’s will be leased for $2,350 a month. The apartments’ sizes will be determined by market demand.
“We have serious concerns that Stillman is relying on the existing utilities at Fort Hancock to meet the demand of 300 tenants or more,” Tittel said. He predicted, “They will have to add new sewer hookups to the site, which may become a loophole for Stillman to be able to lease out even more homes and create more apartments.”
“This development will mean more cars, which means more traffic, and more air pollution,” he predicted. “In order to bear the maintenance costs for the private development, NPS will resort to jacking admission fees up for the park. This will shut out the public even more.” Of all of NPS Gateway parks, Sandy Hook already charges the highest admissions rates.
Tittel argued, “If the NPS approves this private community, they are opening Pandora’s box for more privatization, pushing the public out. How will the people living in these buildings be able to easily go in and out without avoiding the summer traffic on Route 36 and Ocean Avenue? A private road? This is the slippery slope of privatization. People leasing out these apartments will eventually make demands that fit their living needs. This will be a domino effect to ask for more building and increased privatization of the park.”
An example is the proposal to turn an empty gas station into a market or convenience store that can be rented out for $500/month, but the rent will be abated equal to total development cost of that project.
“We should not be privatizing the historical Fort Hancock. It has been part of New Jersey’s coast for decades. It’s not only a major recreational area for people but is an environmentally sensitive area that should not be privatized or overdeveloped,” Tittel said. “The National Park Service also wants to raise entrance fees for maintenance and improvements for our parks. John Muir called parks the Cathedral of Nature. When you try to privatize them and then make the public pay more to visit them, it’s a betrayal, ckear and simple. It is shameful that the federal government hasn’t provided enough money to fix and maintain this and other parks.”
About 20 years ago, the NPS planned to have a Rumson developer privatize and commercialize over three dozen Fort Hancock buildings but the plan fell through in 2009. There is a recent plan to make structural repairs but not renovate a few of the “Officers’ Row” structures that were damaged in Superstorm Sandy with close to $12 million from Monmouth County’s capital budget.
However, other buildings may not be so lucky. The exterior back was of one of the “Officers” Row” building collapsed about 10 years ago, and a few years ago, the roof and a rear wall of an enlisted men’s brick barracks collapsed, making the now-seriously damaged building a safety hazard.
“The lack of funding has allowed many of New Jersey’s historical sites and buildings to be damaged, abandoned, ruined and almost privatized,” Tittel said. “There should be funding to repair these parks and buildings. They belong to all of us, so we cannot let the National Park Service begin to privatize one of the state’s most historic and precious parks. This was once a military establishment built to protect our young country, and it cannot and should not be off limits to the public.