NPS, developer agree on choice of arbitrator

Consultant will review decision to cancel Fort Hancock lease

BY LIZ SHEEHAN Correspondent

MIDDLETOWN — Rumson developer James Wassel and the National Park Service (NPS) have agreed on an arbitrator to determine if the park service’s decision last month to cancel the 60-year lease awarded to Wassel to restore and commercially develop buildings in historic Fort Hancock will stand.

The park service’s lease with Wassel and the company he heads, Sandy Hook Partners (SHP), contained a provision that the developer could request arbitration by a third party if the contract was terminated.

On Sept. 10, Brian Feeney, public affairs officer with the NPS, said in an email that the park service and Sandy Hook Partners had agreed on who would conduct the third-party review.

“We expect that review to be completed by mid-October,” he said.

Feeney confirmed that Maurice Robinson & Associates had been chosen as the arbitrator.

A website for the company, located in El Segundo, Calif., said Robinson’s experience includes forums such as the American Arbitration Association, federal bankruptcy court, superior and state courts, and special review boards of real estate assets.

Wassel did not respond to a request for information about the arbitrator, but when it was announced that he had requested arbitration, he said, “We are confident about the financing package we submitted and are anxious for an independent third party to review it.”

The park service selected Wassel’s proposal for Fort Hancock in 1999 from among 22 submitted. In 2004 the NPS signed a contract with Wassel for the project. The contract detailed how the developer would renovate approximately buildings, mostly built in the late 1800s, and convert them to offices, restaurants, overnight accommodations, conference centers, and environmental and educational facilities.

Opponents of the Wassel proposal, including Save Sandy Hook (SSH), a grassroots group founded to stop the commercial development of the fort, and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-6th District) have criticized the series of extensions the NPS has given to the developer to show he had the financial ability to complete the project. SSH had unsuccessfully challenged the Wassel lease in court.

In August, the park service announced that it was canceling the Wassel lease, saying it had “determined that the financing commitments made by SHP are insufficient to meet the purposes and requirements of this lease.”

After the lease was canceled, Pallone met with Barry Sullivan, superintendent of Gateway National Recreation Area, to express his goal of keeping Fort Hancock, which is in the Sandy Hook Unit of Gateway, free from commercial development.

Pallone said that the meeting was “very positive” and that Sullivan said the park servicewould start an analysis of the buildings that were covered by the lease, which would take at least six months, before taking any action on the site.

Pallone said this would give time to other organizations, including ones already located at the fort, to explore using the buildings.

He said the park service could lease the buildings to nonprofit groups without going through the long process that would be necessary for a private developer.

Officials from Brookdale Community College and Rutgers, both of which now have facilities at the fort, expressed interest in expanding their presence, but said no decisions had been made yet.

Officers of Monmouth County Friends of Clearwater, a group that occupied a building on Officers Row for 16 years before having to vacate when it was included in the lease granted to Wassel, said the organization would look into returning to the fort if it could raise the necessary funds.

As the dispute continues, Wassel has renovated and is renting out the post chapel for weddings and other events and is using the former park headquarters, which he partially renovated, as an office for SHP. He also has a lease for the post theater.

A separate lease agreement for these three buildings, authorized under the canceled 2004 contract, was given to the developer by the park service in 2007.

In August, after the park service announced the termination of Wassel’s 2004 lease, Wassel said that SHP’s operation for the three properties “has conclusively demonstrated the viability of our plans for the remaining properties and is in no way affected by today’s developments.”