Save Sandy Hook

December 1, 2008 at 9:52 pm Leave a comment

For 75 years, Fort Hancock defended New York Harbor from foreign invaders with battlements at the tip of New Jersey’s Sandy Hook peninsula.

The former U.S. Army fort’s historic structures now sit defenseless against the elements, its row of bayfront officers’ quarters mostly abandoned and decrepit, with broken windows, sinking roofs and unstable porches.

National Park Service efforts to get a developer to refurbish the buildings have been stalled for years by legal challenges from activists who don’t want the area overly commercialized. The opponents may be ready to give up, betting that the global credit crisis will do the job for them.

“With the financial market being what it is, I don’t know who’s going to loan money on that project,” said James Coleman, 84, a former judge and state assemblyman who is secretary of Save Sandy Hook, a nonprofit group that sued to stop the plan.

The developer, James Wassel, said he’s confident that he can secure financing for his $75 million proposal to create a “sophisticated, state-of-the-art research office and educational facility and corporate retreat” with inns and restaurants. He declined to identify potential partners or provide financing details until he submits his funding plan.

“We’re not in the best financing market right now,” said Wassel, 58. “Maybe our opponents think they’ve won.”

‘Fairy Godmother’

Save Sandy Hook is ready to declare victory.

“For nine years, he hasn’t had the money,” Coleman said. “I don’t know why there would be some fairy godmother waving a wand and giving him the money now.”

Sandy Hook is a windswept, 7-mile (11-kilometer) peninsula at the northern tip of the New Jersey coast. More than 8,000 people sometimes pack “the Hook” on summer weekends, including some who take the 45-minute ferry ride from Manhattan.

The peninsula is home to the U.S.’s oldest working lighthouse and the East Coast’s biggest nude beach, along with a 14-mile shoreline for the clothed. The bay side is popular for fishing and windsurfing.

Few visitors venture to Fort Hancock, which can resemble a ghost town. About two dozen buildings are occupied, including a former barracks housing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s James J. Howard Marine Sciences Laboratory.

1812 Defenses

Sandy Hook was identified as having military importance early in U.S. history. A post was built there during the War of 1812 after a lack of fortifications on the peninsula allowed the British to occupy New York City during the Revolutionary War. The Army constructed Fort Hancock in the 1890s.

The fort guarded the harbor from German U-boats during World War II. Nike missiles, designed to destroy warplanes before reaching the U.S., were installed there in 1954. After intercontinental ballistic missiles made Nikes obsolete, the Army closed the base in 1974 and transferred it to the park service, abandoning more than 200 structures.

The park service planned to rehabilitate 100 structures as long ago as 1979 but couldn’t secure federal funding.

“It became very obvious to us in the National Park Service that preservation and protection of our national resources couldn’t just happen with government dollars,” said Dave Avrin, Sandy Hook’s superintendent.

Developer Search

In 1999, the service asked developers for proposals to lease and refurbish the buildings. It received 22 bids, and in 2001 signed a letter of intent with Wassel’s firm. Three years later, the service awarded it a 60-year lease to rehabilitate 36 structures.

Save Sandy Hook — led by Coleman and his wife, Judith Stanley Coleman — sued to stop the project, saying the plan would create a “thinly veiled corporate office park” resulting in “crass commercialization.” The group argued that Wassel hadn’t shown he had the money and that the lease violated environmental and historic-preservation laws.

A U.S. district judge in Trenton dismissed the suit in July 2006 and an amended complaint in September 2007, saying the lease wasn’t “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or contrary to any law.”

The opponents appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, which rejected their arguments in September.

Ninety-Day Deadline

The legal challenge is likely to end Christmas Day, with the expiration of a U.S. Supreme Court appeal deadline that the opponents say they will probably let pass, said Lawrence Luttrell, a lawyer for Save Sandy Hook. After the final appeal, Wassel has 90 days to prove he can raise the money, according to a June letter to him from the Interior Department.

Wassel has renovated some buildings, including the fort headquarters, a theater and a chapel on the edge of Sandy Hook Bay that will be used for weddings and other events.

“We never believed it was about right and wrong,” Wassel said. “We believed it was about how long this group would hold us up. They didn’t want anything to happen out here.”

Wassel said he has some tenants lined up, including Brookdale Community College and Rutgers University, which plan an oceanic education and research center.

For the opponents, appealing would only “give further life to what we believe is an otherwise doomed project,” Luttrell said.
By Chris Dolmetsch


Entry filed under: Dive In, Public Waterfront, Region. Tags: , , , .

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