Public asks park service to protect Sandy Hook

Comments to decide need for more thorough
environmental study

By gloria stravelli
Staff Writer

Comments to decide need for more thorough
environmental study
By gloria stravelli
Staff Writer

A common theme runs through the comments of those who support or oppose the proposed redevelopment of the historic buildings on Fort Hancock at Sandy Hook. There is a deep concern that the project not harm the treasured environment of bay and ocean, surf and sand, tidal pools, holly forest, nesting grounds and wildlife habitat on the peninsula.

"They are part of our patrimony," wrote Robert Hespe of Rumson, who opposes using the historic buildings for commercial purposes.

"The natural and man-made environment of Sandy Hook belongs to the American people both to use and to steward," Hespe said in his letter to National Park Service officials.

"The neglect of our federal government over much of the nation’s historic and natural patrimony" led him to support a public/private partnership to restore Fort Hancock, said preservationist Randall Gabrielan in his letter. "Historic leasing may be our last, best chance at Sandy Hook to avoid demolition by neglect," the Middletown Township historian wrote.

The comments, similar in focus but different in opinion, were among more than 220 statements written by individuals and groups to the park service about the environmental assessment of the proposal for the adaptive use of Fort Hancock and the Sandy Hook Proving Ground Historic District.

The written comments were made public by the federal agency in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Greater Media Newspapers.

The statements became part of the public record during a comment period that included two public meetings on the park service’s choice of Sandy Hook Partners LLC to rehabilitate and adaptively reuse 36 historic buildings at Fort Hancock for a mix of uses, including commercial office space, hospitality, education and research.

Sandy Hook Partners, headed by James Wassel, Rumson, plans to spend up to $90 million under a proposal that would give the developer a 60-year historic lease and tax credits. The park service said it lacks the funds to save the deteriorating buildings.

Supporters say the redevelopment will prevent the loss of the landmark buildings, some dating to 1898, and generate funds to rehabilitate others. Opponents object to commercialization and privatization of public land and the proposal’s environmental and traffic impacts, and question whether the plan is economically viable.

Comments in support of the plan were made by the state Historic Preservation Office, the Middletown Landmarks Commission, and Preservation New Jersey Inc., which placed Fort Hancock and Sandy Hook on its most endangered sites list in 1995.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Northeast Office added a caveat to its endorsement of the proposal.

"We urge care in accommodating the greatly increased population density from the planned development," the Trust’s letter said.

The Northern Monmouth Chamber of Commerce, the Two River Council of Mayors and the Bayshore Council of Mayors endorsed the redevelopment.

The majority of the comments, however, expressed concern about the environmental impact the proposal might have.

Members of the Riverside Drive Association, a homeowners group of some 250 families residing in the Navesink River Road area in Middletown, called for a full environmental impact study (EIS) before a final decision is made.

The request for a study was echoed in comments by Nancy Makofka of Leonardo, who also said excluding related projects, like the installation of a natural gas pipe line and a ferry dock, did not meet the requirements of the National Environmental Protection Act.

Environmental groups like the Monmouth County Audubon Society, Red Bank, and the New Jersey Audubon Society, were concerned that the creation of 665 new parking spaces would destroy 6 acres of wildlife habitat and have a detrimental impact on migratory birds.

The Middletown Township Environmental Commission questioned whether the new parking lots would be too far from beach areas. Commission Chairman Michael Fedosh asked for hard data on park visitor patterns, traffic impact, building tenants, occupancy and parking needs, and pointed out inconsistencies in the assessments traffic section.

The American Littoral Society said the park service must protect public access to beaches and fishing locations, noting that Sandy Hook is one of the best recreational fishing spots on the East Coast.

"Nowhere in this document is there enough emphasis on natural resources," said Dery Bennett, executive director of the Littoral Society. He called on the park service to educate visitors, address traffic concerns and spell out how revenues would be used.

The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) said it supports the proposal but leveled harsh criticism.

"The magnitude of the proposed adaptive use project sets an important precedent in the national park system, and it is critical that the proposed action, in all of its aspects, adhere to the highest standard of resource protection," the association wrote.

The NPCA criticized the environmental assessment for failing "to treat the cultural landscape on a par with the historical buildings."

The group also criticized the impact of new parking areas and use of commercial standards for parking.

"Fort Hancock is not a suburban office development; it is a national park and no such comparison should be contemplated," it wrote.

A cross section of county residents raised issues of personal importance.

Robert Rugg of Shrewsbury sought assurance that fishermen and beachgoers would still have a place on Sandy Hook.

Phyllis McMillan of Highlands said all the historic buildings should remain open to the public and available to nonprofit groups like the Girl Scouts.

Louis Schindel of Monroe Township, who was temporarily stationed at Fort Hancock during World War II, asked if the proposal included protecting the security of the U.S. Coast Guard station located at the tip of the Hook.

Joseph Reynolds II of Navesink asked whether murals in the Mule Barn and Officers Club would be preserved.

Sandra Talarico, Little Silver, sought assurance that she would still be able to bike and walk safely after traffic on the Hook increases.

One group of 201 Monmouth County residents from towns including Hazlet, Union Beach, Keyport and Holmdel signed a letter expressing "strong objection" to Sandy Hook Partners’ proposal. "Commercialization does remedy the need for structural rehabilitation, but at the cost of overcrowding and spoiling Sandy Hook’s natural beauty," it read.

Russel Wilson, Sandy Hook’s superintendent, said the Park Service is reviewing the public comment and will respond when the review is complete. Based upon the review, Northeast Regional Director Marie Rust will decide whether to let stand the environmental assessment’s finding that the project’s impacts will not be significant, or to initiate a more in-depth environmental impact study.