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For Whom the Parks Open

Map of NJ State parks, by region

Map of NJ State parks, by region

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.  ~~~ John Donne

[Update – 7/18/11 – I just came across this July 5 Star Ledger story, which is disgusting. Although not a state park story, it deals with urban parks: After 5 years, $12M spent, Newark Triangle Park project remains a parking lot]

During today’s Assembly Budget Committee hearing, while regurgitating his pro-business talking points, rookie DEP Commissioner Bob Martin made a big deal of the Christie Administration’s self described commitment to keep State Parks open.

Martin highlighted that point, despite the fact that in order to keep the parks open last year, they stole $19 million of NJ Turnpike money dedicated to tree replanting, a point noted by Chairman Greenwald. Worse, this year, Christie is stealing almost $2 million more of global warming money to settle litigation regarding last year’s failure to meet Turnpike tree replanting requirements.

But, the parks issues came back to bite Martin.

At the tail end of a 4 hour love-fest that was larded up with softball questions and replete with the all too predictable attempts by legislators to advocate on behalf of polluters and developers over the interests of their own constituents who strongly support environmental and public health protections, Martin was forced to eat those words.

You see, NJ has 39 State Parks – but only one of them is in an urban area (Liberty State Park, Jersey City).

Despite prior administrations’ efforts to rectify this disparity, the Christie Administration just pulled the plug on funding development of Trenton’s new urban State Park (see: Christie Buries Trenton’s History – Kills 1730’s Petty’s Run Restoration

Is that fair?

Do Trenton and other urban NJ residents – particularly disadavantaged poor and minority communities – have adequate access to enjoy State Parks?

Do they benefit from investment of State Park resources?

Do their kids get the summer jobs?

Do their communities get the spin-off economic benefits associated with a State Park?

Does it make sense to cover over Trenton’s historic Petty’s Run, when the same amount of money to pay for that could be used to grade, stabilize, and fence the site to keep it open for tourists and public viewing?

Does it make sense to abolish the D&R Canal Commission when that move will not save taxpayers one penny, jeopardize drinking water protections and a magnificent linear State park, and increase permit review timeframes, costs, and bureuacratic red tape?

Those questions became the focal point of a heated exchange today between Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson-Coleman (D-Mercer) and DEP Commissioner Bob Martin.

Watson-Coleman was clearly the only legislator on the Budget Committee who came prepared with facts, local knowledge, and a willingness to challenge the Christie DEP on policy.

And when she did, Watson-Coleman absolutely destroyed Commissioner Martin on the urban parks issue, and made him look very foolish on Martin’s recommendation to abolish the Delaware and Raritan Canal Commission.

It was a pleasure to watch.

I encourage readers to listen to the exchange in full (click here and hit link for the 10 am hearing) – it starts at time 2:04:00 and runs through 2:21:15

She starts off by tersely noting “Sorry we couldn’t get together beforehand“, a backhanded criticism of the fact that Martin met with many of the members of the Committee before the hearing, yet did not extend that respect or common courtesy to her.

It only got better.

She exposed Martin’s ignorance of what the D&R Canal Commission actually does. She destroyed Martin’s recommendation for abolishing the D&R Canal Commission.

Martin was forced to admit that no taxpayer money would be saved by abolishing the Commission. He instead claimed his recommendation was designed to “”cut layers of government”. But in fact – as developer and D&R Commissioner member Charlie Knights testified last week – Martin’s move will actually INCREASE government permit reviews as developers are forced to get at least 4 different DEP permit approvals, instead of the former Canal Commission’s single approval.

On Petty’s Run, Watson-Coleman noted that experts had stated that it would cost just as much to bury it as keep it open ($400,000). In response, Martin claimed that the option to keep Petty’s Run open was not presented to him (I flat out don’t believe that).

On the fairness issues, she hammered Martin by stressing:

Urban areas are being disproportionately hurt by [the Christie] budget… Why does all the sacrifice have to come from the communities that have the least to give?

Thankfully Chairman Greenwald agreed with her, and chastised the Commissioner by suggesting that he look at arial photos of Trenton – has Martin seen all the State owned blacktop and parking lots? (more than 1/3 of Trenton is owned by the State, denying City residents quality open space, riverfront access, tax ratables, or an ability to redevelop).

Greenwald said he often spoke to and sympathized with Trenton’s kids. He warned Martin that underinvestment and neglect were not only unfair, they were jeopardizing the ability to redevelop Trenton. He concluded:

We have not shown respect for our capital city, like Washington and other states have.

Despite misguided “Red Tape” rhetoric, Assemblyman Burzichelli also made good points of criticism about Martin’s budget’s funding preference for commercial versus residential underground storage tank cleanups. He noted that there were over 300 residential undergound storage tanks polluting Gloucester County groundwater that could not get DEP funding.

He also noted fishing reef acess and loss of federal funds because of DEP allowing commercial fishermen to access reefs created solely for recreational fishermen. Again, Christie’s pro-business bias hurts regular people – homeowners and recreational fishermen.

It remains to be seen what the Democrats will actually do in the budget to back up this rhetoric and correct these problems. We will keep you posted.

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