Congressman Calls for Investigation Into Fort Hancock Deal

One of the old buildings at Fort Hancock in need of restoration.

Lacking funds to restore and maintain aging buildings at Fork Hancock, the NPS wants commercial interests to handle the task. Photo courtesy of NPCA.

A congressman from New Jersey, calling the Park Service's handling of a lease of three dozen historic buildings at Fort Hancock a "debacle," wants a federal investigation into the matter. Representative Frank Pallone called for the probe Monday in a letter to the Interior Department's Inspector General.

"This entire process has been a debacle," the Democrat wrote to Inspector General Earl E. Devaney. "I seriously question why this agreement remains in place if Mr. (James) Wassel cannot meet any of the promises he made back in 2004."

As I noted the other day, the Park Service just gave Mr. Wassel a fourth extension to come up with the financing necessary to fund his dream to turn the rundown buildings -- former officer quarters, a dorm for troops, even a mule barn -- into commercial operations such as B&Bs and restaurants.

When the Park Service three years ago sought proposals on how to redevelop Fork Hancock, which is part of Gateway National Recreation Area in the New York metropolitan area, it received 21 other proposals in addition to Mr. Wassel's. How they compared to the vision offered by Mr. Wassel's Sandy Hook Partners is unclear.

Yet for the agency to grant Sandy Hook Partners a 60-year-lease to the facilities and then continually extend the deadline for the partnership to demonstrate it has the funding necessary raises quite a few questions. Among them, what due diligence did the Park Service do to ensure Sandy Hook Partners could handle a project of this scope?

Of course, there's also the question of the appropriateness of the Park Service to lease out its facilities for commercial endeavors, but I've addressed that previously.

Here's Congressman Pallone's letter to the Inspector General:

July 2, 2007

Mr. Earl Devaney
Inspector General
U.S. Department of the Interior
1849 C Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20240

Dear Mr. Devaney:

I am writing to urge you to investigate a lease agreement that was signed three years ago between the National Park Service (NPS) and Sandy Hook Partners (SHP) to begin the redevelopment of Fort Hancock at the Gateway National Recreation Area's Sandy Hook Unit.

Under the terms of the lease, SHP, which is owned by Mr. James Wassel, agreed to renovate 36 of Fort Hancock's 100 buildings. The conceptual plans indicated that redevelopment would include the opening of private businesses such as bed and breakfasts and cafes in the renovated buildings. It was this over-commercialization of the Fort that initially led me to oppose the plan.

However, I also seriously questioned Mr. Wassel's ability to produce the necessary funds to move forward with the three phase project. Those fears have been realized over the last three years as NPS has granted Mr. Wassel repeated lease extensions due to SHP's lack of financial resources. Both the NPS and SHP have used a lawsuit filed by concerned citizens as an excuse for these continued delays, but I seriously question why this agreement remains in place if Mr. Wassel cannot meet any of the promises he made back in 2004.

From my vantage point, this entire process has been a debacle. Beyond the commercialization concerns, the National Park Service should have never signed this lease agreement without SHP demonstrating the requisite financing to complete the plan. I have been told of similar circumstances where NPS officials at other sites refused to enter into lease agreements for commercial development without evidence of sufficient financial resources.

Accordingly, I request that your office open an immediate investigation into the matter. Principally, in light of the fact that SHP did not provide any proof of financing at the time of the agreement, why did the National Park Service approve the deal? Are there any financial requirements currently in place within the National Park Service that must be met before a lease agreement can be made? If so, were those requirements met in the case of the agreement signed between the NPS and SHP? Finally, is there any requirement that SHP submit to NPS any loan agreements that have been made with outside entities?

Finally, are there any prohibitions or limits on the NPS' ability to continue extensions of the lease agreement? To date, as many as four or five extensions have been granted for six months or a year. Does NPS require any proof of financing to approve these extensions? Can extensions continue to be granted in the future? Essentially, when does the process end? When would the contract be extinguished so that we can move on to other options that would not involve private redevelopment?

When the lease agreement was signed, I was told that private redevelopment was the only solution, and if we did not take action, Fort Hancock's historic buildings would crumble to the ground. Now, three years later, the buildings are in worse condition than ever.

Please know that I place great importance on any decisions that impact the future of Sandy Hook and Fort Hancock. I appreciate your prompt attention in this matter, and should you require any further information from my staff or me, please do not hesitate to contact my office.

Sincerely,

FRANK PALLONE, JR.
Member of Congress

Comments

The bigger question is this: Is Fort Hancock a nationally significant historic site? For that matter is the Gateway NRA actually something that taxpayers in Oregon and North Dakota should be paying their hard earned tax money for? Why were these particular plots of ground made into a national park area in the first place? Answer these questions first and I'm sure that the rest of the "debacle" will become much clearer.

The park service has been put into an untenable situation by the forces of politics to be something that they definitely aren't. In the case of Fort Hancock, and many other places of similar type that are thrust into the system by politicians, park managers are forced to play the role of tenant landlord, commercial developer and contracting specialist for areas that most agency professionals would never target for national park status in the first place. Why wasn't the state of New Jersey or Monmouth County offered these "priceless" buildings of irreplaceable value? I know why, because they are nothing more than run down military facilities in a state of advanced decay. I bet your average Monmouth County resident couldn't even tell you where the place is on a map. It's no wonder this guy can't get private sector funding, his potential lenders must think he's crazy.

The ultimate question to be asked is why was the park service saddled with an urban park in the first place? Are the areas contained in the Gateway NRA "crown jewels" that require federal protection? Does the rest of the nation truly benefit from their continued federal administration? Would New York & New Jersey pay the freight for this park? If not, why not? Is Fort Hancock up there with Fort Sumter, Gettysburg and Ft. McHenry in telling the "national story"? I seriously doubt it. Here then are the seeds of your "debacle".

There are many locations in the NPS goody bag that aren't particularly scenic or memorable, but hold strategic positions of importance for one reason or another. Across the river from Mount Vernon is an otherwise boring piece of land run by NPS that does little more than preserve the view from Mount Vernon. Others are "scenic parkways" like the Baltimore Washington Parkway or the suburban Washington parkways in Virginia that are nothing more than a guaranteed road link between Washington DC and NSA, CIA, and other such places. In a national crisis, you can be sure these roads will be shut down to the rest of the world. Yeah, I bet a few NPS areas are even superfund cleanup sites waiting to be discovered. Some Gateway NRA locations are important migratory waterfowl spots, and because they happen to have some American history associated with them, I imagine they wound up with NPS as opposed to some other Interior agency. I often wonder what Greenbelt Park here in Maryland is really all about. It's a sorry little scrap of woods next to the DC beltway, within earshot of all the highway traffic at all times. Hardly NPS material. Not even state park material. I imagine Gateway NRA's New Jersey peninsula will always hold some potential military significance in a future crisis, but there's no reason the people living in Megalopolis can't enjoy a little escape from the daily grind now and then -- until that day comes.

-- Jon Merryman

Dear Mr. Merryman, I couldn't agree with you more. I recently visited Sandy Hook, taking the ferry from Lower Manhattan. Its beautiful beaches were crowded on a hot July day, providing welcome relief from the heat for thousands of people. But the historic and natural attractions were equally interesting. Many New York residents (and visitors) are probably casually aware that there's an old fort in Battery Park at the tip of Manhattan (it's now used as a ticket office for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island ferries), and they may even be aware that there's a sister fort on Governors Island just across the Upper Bay (both dating from the War of 1812) — but it wasn't until I got to Sandy Hook that I realized the extent of the defense system that has been in place in some form since the American Revolution to protect New York harbor. I didn't know — until that afternoon — that the oldest lighthouse in the United States still in use is in Sandy Hook. Even the Visitors Center was interesting, with its insights into the perilous New Jersey coast and the formation of the U.S. Life-Saving Service to rescue shipwrecked sailors. As for Fort Hancock, it is beautiful — and a little sad because so many of the buildings are in disrepair and may soon be too far gone to salvage. The row of 18 officers' houses facing Sandy Hook Bay and the parade ground is a grand sight as visitors debark from the ferry. Along with the rest of Fort Hancock, they were designed by Captain Arthur Murray, who consulted on the design with Carrere and Hastings, two of the most prominent architects of the period. I particularly liked the house that is open as a museum, accurately furnished as it would have been in the 1940s. The spaciousness of the house (occupied by an Army lieutenant and his family) would be the envy of most New Yorkers and was most likely taken for granted at the time, but I imagine that few contemporary women would envy the life of an Army officer's wife, with its rigidly prescribed duties and expectations. Does Fort Hancock tell something of our national story? I think so — and am glad that the National Park Service has it and the Gateway National Recreation Area under its jurisdiction. I hope that the money will be found to help the dedicated park rangers and volunteers do the job they would like to do in preserving and interpreting the site. — Terese Loeb Kreuzer

"Anonymous" states: "is the Gateway NRA actually something that taxpayers in Oregon and North Dakota should be paying their hard earned tax money for?" In the words of the NPCA's 2007 State of the Parks report on the Gateway NRA: "the very name “Gateway” was supposed to inspire its role as a park that was not only the portal to the Big Apple, but also a portal for millions to the National Park System." Should the millions, or tens of millions, of taxpayers in the New York metropolitan area, who are never going to be able to visit the wilderness parks that some elitist backpacking devotees may prefer, have to support THOSE parks with their hard earned tax dollars?

Having only recently discovered the NPT, I was pleased to discover a dialogue on this issue that was generally well-meaning, but sometimes ill informed. I can walk to Sandy Hook in 10 minutes; have read every filing in the recently decided case in New Jersey's District Court; and find such condescending comments by far-removed observers truly offensive. More people should, like Terese Loeb Kreuzer, visit Fort Hancock, or read its National Register nomination, and educate themselves before taking pot-shots.