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
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.
FRANK PALLONE, JR.
Member of Congress