Guest Column Brian Unger Sandy Hook needs room to breathe

Guest Column
Brian Unger
Sandy Hook needs room to breathe

The headline for Russel Wilson’s Jan. 2 Your Turn guest column was, "Partnership will breathe life into Fort Hancock." But what many of us are worried about is, if the Sandy Hook Partners is allowed to breathe such a strong dose of economic development into Fort Hancock, will it kill Sandy Hook?

Will Sandy Hook retain its unique rural character, its rich habitat, its status as the last remaining strip of relatively wild, barely developed coastline in the nation’s largest metropolitan area?

I read into Russel’s careful choice of language and his interesting formulation of the issues a desire to have the debate be about economic development, "adaptive reuse," rational use of economic resources — things that have little to do with the Sandy Hook most of us are interested in.

The issue is not Fort Hancock. The issue is Sandy Hook as a whole, and what she is.

I like Russel, but I worry about his vision of a bustling, economically self-sustaining Sandy Hook with conferences, mini-conventions, business meetings, pubs, restaurants and overnight hotel facilities. I worry that in the drive to "rationalize" Sandy Hook and its revenue base, we risk rationalizing out of existence the priceless environment that is already there.

I see the potential, in the future, of sacrificing what we already have to protect these new economic assets that will be protected by contracts with leaseholders.

The feeling I’m getting is that this proposal will remake more than just Fort Hancock — it will remake Sandy Hook quite deeply— the old Sandy Hook of surfers, fishermen, solitary beach walkers, bird watchers, divers, environment lovers and summer tourists.

Sandy Hook is outdoors. That’s an obvious fact that should be studied closely. In the most densely populated state, in the largest metro region in the country, what is valuable now and for generations to come is wild, open outdoor space.

The "historic" card also seems way overplayed. We’ve got to be at least a little skeptical and think critically about the claims of some deep historical value for Fort Hancock. Unless I’m misinformed, Fort Hancock has served a very limited and marginal military role since Revolutionary times when it was the noteworthy site of British troop departures to loyalist New York after the Battle of Monmouth.

Although I’m aware it housed troops in World War II, and contains military housing dating from the 1890s and some fairly unremarkable gun bunkers and equally perfunctory Nike missile emplacements, I’m still missing the point. Except for the architecture which should be renovated, the historical value seems more implied than demonstrated. I hope the environmental assessment will provide additional information from a respected historian with serious academic credentials.

I had begun to draft these comments prior to the appearance of Judith Stanley’s comments in last week’s paper. Mrs. Stanley, president of the Monmouth Conservation Foundation, is an august and reasoned voice on conservation issues if there ever was one.

It was somewhat jarring to read about the really critical and potentially controversial elements of the plan from Mrs. Stanley, not from Mr. Wilson. I wonder about that omission. To wit, Mrs. Stanley wrote, "The proposal calls for a bed-and-breakfast, a 400-seat conference center, a restaurant, a small pub, and a theater. This certainly sounds like commercial development to me, and could ultimately lead to trucks, garbage and pollution."

So let’s not mistake the milk for the tea. The real tea in this tempestuous teapot is wild, beautiful, outdoorsy Sandy Hook, where recreation in a dazzling environment is what we want to drink. The milk, Fort Hancock, is OK. We like it; it’s in the tea already and we don’t want it to sour. But it’s not why we drink tea in the morning.

Not long ago, I flew over New York Harbor and eastern Monmouth County. As you look down from high up in the sky, Sandy Hook is the only natural coastline unspoiled by man’s restless development of every open space. Let’s be careful.

Brian Unger of Long Branch is regional co-director for Surfers’ Environmental Alliance (SEA), and was a co-founder of Clean Ocean Action.