A federal appellate court in New Jersey has upheld a lower court's opinion that the National Park Service was within its rights to lease nearly three dozen historic buildings at Gateway National Recreation Area to a commercial developer.
The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit is a blow to Save Sandy Hook, a non-profit group that has fought to prevent a developer from commercializing part of Fort Hancock, a post-Civil War fort that falls within the NRA.
The developer, Jim Wassel, has maintained that his efforts will benefit the facilities by restoring and maintaining them, as opposed to watching them continue to deteriorate because the National Park Service lacks the financial wherewithal to do just that.
Among Mr. Wassel's plans for his $70 million-$90 million "restoration" of Fort Hancock is to possibly turn 16 Officer's Row homes into bed-and-breakfast inns. A dorm once used for U.S. troops could be transformed into classrooms for Rutgers University or perhaps Brookdale Community College. Mess halls, gymnasiums, even the old mule barn and the officer's club, would be turned into who knows what to generate profits for Mr. Wassel. And the NPS would spend $2.2 million on a new dock so he could ferry conferees over to Fort Hancock from Manhattan.
Of course, some wonder whether Mr. Wassel has the financial wherewithal to get the job done. Back in 2001 the developer was awarded a 60-year-lease on 34 historic buildings in Fort Hancock, contingent upon him proving he had the financing to restore and operate the facilities. Just this past July the National Park Service granted Mr. Wassel a sixth extension to prove he has the funding needed to accomplish the task.
Save Sandy Hook officials long have questioned the appropriateness of the lease, arguing that it is contrary to the National Park Service's mission. In their legal battle the group has maintained that “[t]he proposed uses authorized by the Lease amount to a thinly disguised corporate office park in derogation of the purposes and values for which the Sandy Hook Unit was created and, as a result, will result in the crass commercialization and privatization of the Sandy Hook Unit in violation of the purposes and values for which Gateway was established.”
However, a year ago a lower court dismissed the group's case. Appealing to the appellate court produced the same result. In a very brief opinion issued today the court held that, "We have carefully examined the record and considered the parties’ arguments on appeal and can discern no error in the District Court’s ruling."
That said, a congressman has called for an investigation into the matter, and the resulting report from the Interior Department's Inspector General has yet to be issued.
Legal findings aside, this deal raises some philosophical questions (which I've raised before). For starters, will this deal, and others being considered by other cash-strapped parks, encourage National Park Service managers across the National Park System to commercialize operations rather than wait for federal funding to maintain facilities?
If so, is it appropriate for the general public to, in effect, pay several times (1. Through their taxes that fund the federal government. 2. Through entrance fees to the park in question. 3. Through fees charged by these commercial interests operating within parks) to see or enjoy the parks it in theory owns?