TRENTON - A bill that opponents feared would open the door to the privatization and commercialization of Liberty State Park was signed into law by Gov. Christie on Thursday, but it is expected to be revised soon by new legislation to protect the site.
The measure's sponsors, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto and State Sen. Paul Sarlo, said in a statement that they would write legislation to address concerns about development of the site, a popular gateway to the Statue of Liberty.
Christie says the law will help make government smaller and more affordable by merging two agencies - the Meadowlands Commission and the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority - into the new Meadowlands Regional Commission.
That commission, according to the law, "shall evaluate, approve, and implement any plans for Liberty State Park."
Park supporters and environmental groups worry that that kind of language paves the way for intrusive development at the park.
Prieto (D., Bergen) and Sarlo (D., Bergen) on Thursday tried to allay those fears by offering to tweak the law.
"Liberty State Park and what it means to our heritage holds a special place, and, as has always been the case, we will stand ready to protect the park," Prieto and Sarlo said in a statement.
"To that end, we will be introducing legislation to clarify that the Meadowlands Regional Commission may only review plans for Liberty State Park at the request of the Department of Environmental Protection, and that nothing in state law shall be construed to transfer ownership of any Liberty State Park property to the commission or anyone else," they said.
Though having unspecified issues with the bill, Christie signed it based on bipartisan negotiations and agreement with Prieto and Sarlo, according to a statement from his office.
"Though this legislation is imperfect in its current form, I believe it is important that we act to move forward with this commonsense consolidation of government to deliver savings to New Jersey taxpayers while we move forward with bipartisan agreement to address concerns with the current bill," Christie said.
The law's critics remain wary, though. They want the public to have some say over the revision of the law.
"The broad public consensus throughout the park history has been for a free, non-privatized/non-commercialized park behind Lady Liberty as a legacy to future generations," said Sam Pesin, president of the Friends of Liberty State Park, a nonprofit advocacy group.
The friends group "and all other park supporters will need to be vigilant every step of the way to fight every ill-conceived privatization plan," he said.
The 1,200-acre park - with breathtaking views of New York's skyline - is managed by the Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Parks and Forestry.
Only the DEP should have the authority to approve or implement any plan or special event for the park, said Pesin. "It's heartening that people expressed themselves on the park and it did make a difference with the governor," he said.
Park advocates object to the Meadowlands Regional Commission's having any say over Liberty State Park.
"By placing Liberty State Park's sacred public space under the control of a politically directed economic-development commission, we feel as if Gov. Christie has pulled the chair out from under the Statue of Liberty and all for which she stands," said a statement Thursday from NY/NJ Baykeeper, an advocacy group that seeks to preserve the Hudson-Raritan Estuary.
The Christie administration has been pushing since 2011 for state parks to generate more revenue and depend less on taxpayers.
As the most popular destination in the system, with up to five million visitors annually, Liberty State Park could bring in more money. It receives funding from the Liberty House and Maritime Parc restaurants, Liberty Landing Marina, and the Statue Cruises ferry lease.
The future management and potential development of the site appear to be addressed by the law, which says the new commission "may avail itself of any plans under review by the Department of Environmental Protection from any source that may promote expanded and diverse recreational, cultural, and educational opportunities for visitors to Liberty State Park and provide greater access to park facilities."
Language bringing the site under the umbrella of the new Meadowlands Regional Commission was added at the last minute before final passage.
The reason the law's critics are "being tough on the governor, even though Prieto and Sarlo say that corrective language will fix most concerns, is that Liberty State Park has nothing to do with the Meadowlands Regional Commission and was only brought into it at the request of the governor," said Greg Remaud, deputy director of the NY/NJ Baykeeper. "He could have simply removed it."