Home > Uncategorized > DEP Finally Admits That State Land Lease Program is Broken

DEP Finally Admits That State Land Lease Program is Broken

Will Martin’s Panel Merely Become Cover for Privatization of State Parks?

We have been working on the DEP lease program for years (see this and this and this).

So we were pleased that yesterday DEP Commissioner Martin finally bit the bullet. Martin’s move comes after 4 negative Office of Legislative Services independent audits over a 10 year period.

But instead of addressing the program management problems when they first emerged publicly, in 2005 former DEP Commissioner Brad Campbell basically diverted attention from them in legislative testimony that focused on a few bad apples as the cause of the problem.

Subsequent legislative and budget oversight led to outright denial by former Commissioner Lisa Jackson who testified:

“… we do not foresee the collection of back rent and the renegotiation of existing leases generating “millions” of dollars of revenue for the state.”

That DEP mismanagement led to passage of reform legislation in 2008 directing DEP to

conduct a re-appraisal of the rents and fees charged for all residences and other buildings and structures, and for utility easements and right-of-ways, located on State park or forest lands to ensure they reflect current fair market values and will continue to do so;

Finally acknowledging the scope of the problem, DEP Commissioner Bob Martin issued a press release: COMMISSIONER MARTIN ESTABLISHES NEW PANEL TO OVERHAUL – PROCESS OF LEASING STATE OWNED LANDS:

“This process is broken. How we determine compensation for allowing use of our precious state property, much of it preserved as unique open space and recreational land, needs to be overhauled,’’ said Commissioner Martin. “We must ensure that the compensation we get for allowing use of these lands accurately reflects the value of the property. Especially in these tough economic times, the State cannot afford to leave money on the table, and we have an obligation to get the best deal for the public.’’

First, we give Martin credit, but must note that Martin was slow to make the move. The move comes after:

1) In February 2010, Martin himself approved the paltry $45,000 lease to Texas based Tennessee Gas Co. for a 23 mile pipeline across forested water supply watershed State lands in the Highlands. So Martin now basically admits he made a mistake;

2)  we were working with reporters from the Bergen Record and Star Ledger, who were conducting investigations into the DEP statewide lease program. Those investigations resulted in today’s stories (see this and this). Martin’s release was timed to pre-empt and avoid really bad news coverage and he screwed those reporters who had worked so hard;

3) in 2008, the Legislature directed DEP to assure that leases reflected current market value and issue a Report to the Legislature. As we wrote on August 3, 2008;

4) behind the scenes, the Office of Legislative Services was pressuring DEP and the Attorney General’s Office regarding failure to correct deficiencies found in a series of prior OLS audits.

5) DEP’s inability to mange current leases was an embarrassing barrier to Governor Christie’s plans to privatize State Parks.

Second, we were disappointed by Martin’s failure to include a public interest member on his “new panel” and to agree to hold public hearings and take testimony on needed reforms. The panel would  benefit from inclusion of the voice of a parks advocate. A public process would lend strenght and credibility to the panel’s recommendations.

Keeping the deliberations and recommendations a DEP internal private process in a Report to the Governor does not inspire confidence in real reforms.

It is not too late to fix this problem.

We urge Commissioner Martin to appoint a public interest representative to his Panel, open the process up to public hearings, and agree to make his Report to the Governor a public document.

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  1. August 6th, 2010 at 09:43 | #1

    The State Parks, Forests and Historic Sites deserve qualified leadership and a vision. The State Historic Sites, including our Revolutionary War battlefields and monuments should be removed from the DEP and placed in the Department of State. State forests should be placed under the care of foresters and new managers found for the entire system. The reason these problems persist is because the same bureaucrats perpetuate them.

  2. August 6th, 2010 at 09:58 | #2

    Kevin – completely agree on need for vision and competent professional management, and completely agree that DEP bureaucracy has harmed the missions of the Parks, forests, and historic resources.

    However, given the inter-relationships (in ecological science, resource management, and environmental regulation) between natural resources and parks, forests and even historic sites, I disagree that shifting management outside DEP is the answer.

    We need better vision and management at DEP, and a shift of resources from the permit programs – Department of Sate is not the place for enhanced professional resource management to occur.

    Plus, the legislators that support these proposals ten to be motivated by a desire to shrink DEP and attack regulation more than to beef up natural resource maangement.

  1. February 24th, 2011 at 23:39 | #1
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