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Don’t mess with Liberty State Park or risk the wrath of Sam Pesin.
Pesin, son of the park’s founder, Morris Pesin, is a small, retired pre-school teacher, mild-mannered until riled like the comic book character, The Hulk, at which point people threatening the park need to look out.
The park, named partly because of its location behind the Statue of Liberty, opened in 1976, but faced threats almost immediately.
“As my father used to say, we’re behind the statue 100 percent,” Sam Pesin, recalled with more than a little ironic humor.
But a recent renewed proposal to use a portion of Liberty State Park to expand a luxury golf course has riled Pesin.
Legislation that would protect the park was up for review in November. The state Assembly made a few amendments, then at a public hearing in the state Senate Environmental Committee, representatives for the golf course – some of whom were connected with Gov. Phil Murphy’s transition team – raised questions about a small sliver of land at the extreme southern most portion of the park. The luxury golf course is seeking to relocate three holes from a remote location on the western side of the course to the waterfront area. This would generate revenue for Liberty State Park, but it would also eliminate an area that is considered a wildlife sanctuary, which is closed half the year and open to study the other half.
While Marvel Comics may never make a movie about the trials and tribulations of Liberty State Park, Pesin deserves one.
Threats against the park read like a horror movie script. Every time the hero manages to divert disaster and defeat the antagonist, a new threat emerges.
This latest effort comes at a time when the state is on the verge of enacting The Liberty State Park Protection Act that would prevent massive commercial enterprises from making use of the premium waterfront property that makes up the park.
Since the park was established, someone has been trying to exploit the property for commercial uses. This included turning a portion of it into an amusement theme park in 1977, creating a commercial amphitheater in 1980, building 8,000 luxury condo units there in 1881, converting the historic rail road terminal into a doll museum in 1982, turning the park into a golf course in 1991, then again in 1995, followed by another amphitheater proposal, a water park, a new marina, or even installing solar panels on the park’s recreation fields.
One proposal hoped to build a Formula One racetrack that would circle the park, complete with viewing stands.
There was even a proposal to expand casino gambling to a site bordering the park – a plan that eventually fell apart when Mayor Steven Fulop ceased to back it, an issue that reportedly caused a break between Fulop and Tom Bertoli, Fulop’s one-time key advisor.
The most recent and perhaps most serious threats came under then Gov., Christopher Christie, who wanted to require state parks to generate revenue to help pay for their own upkeep. New Jersey Future even developed a plan that would have converted a portion of the rail terminal property into a commercial hotel and turned the current park maintenance yards into an amusement park – featuring the world’s largest Ferris Wheel.
While some of Christie’s ideas had some merit, they presented a serious challenge to the philosophy behind public parks which Pesin espoused. Pesin believes that parks should not become revenue-generating machine, but recreational facilities for the general public.
“From 1976 when the park opened, the public has made it clear that no part of this precious recourse should be sacrificed,” Pesin said.
The park already generated between $2.5 million to $3 million annually through existing programs, the primary use of the park, according to Pesin, is as a park.
“Parks should not have to pay for themselves,” Pesin said
Some of the ideas Christie proposed also appeared to benefit wealthy over the poor such as the construction of a marina on the south end of the park which would take away areas currently used by poor people.
In each case, Pesin and his 800-member non-profit Friends of Liberty State Park took the lead in opposition, often carrying the fight to Trenton where if he could not convince Christie, was able to convince enough legislators to beat back the threat.
But Christie did manage to shift some of the oversight on the park from the Department of Parks and Forestry to the newly created New Jersey Sports Authority – a move, Pesin claims reduced the public’s ability to respond to changes in the park.
Pesin’s father, Morris, fought for more than 19 years to get area behind Ellis Island and The Statue of Liberty designated as a park, and his son, Sam isn’t about to let anyone mess with that legacy.
Pesin, while lacking any real political power of his own, has been instrumental in assembling an Avenger-like force, seriously powerful allies such as environmentalist, politicians and other activists.
And it is this ability to draw on the strength of others that as brought about The Liberty State Park Protection Act – which could once and for all put an end to the threat of commercial development in the park.
Only at the last minute, just prior to when the act would have likely been implemented a new threat emerges – an attempt by the neighboring golf course to take a small sliver of the southernmost part of the park to expand the golf course.
Pesin is already hot on the trail of state legislators to beat back this last minute threat, sending emails and making other contacts that would bring out his allies, and get the act enacted that would bring to Liberty State Park the same level of protection as federal law gives to places such as the Grand Canyon.
The act would not outlaw all commercial enterprises in the park. An in-season ice skating ring would be acceptable, bicycle and kayak rentals, boat tours and such also fit into Pesin’s vision and would be permitted under the act. But also included would be a park advisory committee that would give greater voice to ordinary people in making changes to the park.
Pesin believes the state legislature will pass the protection act.
“We have a great sponsors and cosponsors,” he said. “I have faith that the prime sponsor and supporters will approve this and will get to the governor’s desk.”
But he’s scared that the billionaire owner of the golf course could sway the governor. Pesin is taking no chances. He’s sending out the bat signal or whatever it takes to get his super powerful political allies out, just in case they need to fight.