TRENTON – Liberty State Park on the Jersey City waterfront, New Jersey’s most visited state park, could be in line for a major, years-long overhaul under a bill advancing in the Legislature.

The issue of what kind of development to allow or block in Liberty State Park has been long debated and is suddenly speeding ahead, through a bill establishing a task force that would decide on its master plan – and providing a quarter-billion dollars in seed money.

Despite a push from advocacy groups, the approach is more permissive than the Liberty State Park Protection Act that has been proposed but gained little traction in Trenton.

'A big number, even for Trenton'

Architect Alan Mountjoy of the Boston-based firm NBBJ says the plan cleans up and reopens 235 contaminated acres, adds protections against sea-level rise and includes accessible amenities the community said in public meetings and surveys that it wants.

Those include a community center with an Olympic-size swimming and diving pool, ice rink sheets, an open-air market, around a dozen sports fields with concessions, a 2,500-seat track and field stadium, a 5,000-seat amphitheater/stadium and a waterfront amphitheater in a grass bowl.

“This is a framework for a future park that is world-class, and it may take a while to get there,” Mountjoy said.

Sen. Brian Stack, D-Hudson, said Liberty State Park is a statewide jewel but doesn’t serve as many people as possible as it lacks facilities, ballfields and transportation options. The bill provides $250 million to get that started, but far more would be needed either through public or philanthropic funds.

“I understand it’s a big number, even for Trenton,” Stack said. “But when you look at the years of neglect, it’s only fair.”

Alarms raised about privatization

Sam Pesin, president of Friends of Liberty State Park, said the group welcomes the community center and ballfields but not stadiums and concert venues.

“Please don’t throw away its future on commercial venues that will destroy the park’s true purposes,” Pesin said.

“I don’t know if any of you have considered how much land that will take up and how much land that would take up from the people in the park,” said Daniel Burgos of American Legion Post 419.

The plan also has its backers in the community. Jersey City police Detective Joe Cossolini, who lives a half-mile from the park, says lawmakers can change not just the landscape of Liberty State Park but the direction of kids’ lives, given the dangers in the neighborhood.

“This is a life and death choice for some of these kids,” said Cossolini, president of the Jersey City Police Officers Benevolent Association. “They have nothing to do in that neighborhood. They have nowhere to go. There’s nothing there for them to take pride in.”

Changes made to plan

The bill was amended by the Senate environment committee to say money-making amenities wouldn’t be required to be pursued by the Department of Environmental Protection, though it doesn’t prohibit ticketed sports venues or put the Caven Point wildlife area off-limits to development.

“We’ve addressed 90% of the concerns,” Smith said. “It’s not 100. But I think it gets us a lot closer to where we want to be.”

The changes to the bill also require the task force to take public input in at least three meetings, prevent a casino from being built in the park and require any renewable energy development in the development such as solar panels be installed on rooftops, not by clearing trees for a solar farm.

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Though the legislation would spend $250 million in public money, it was not second-referenced to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee and is instead in position for a full Senate vote.

The companion bill in the Assembly is scheduled for a hearing before the State and Local Government Committee on Wednesday.

Michael Symons is the Statehouse bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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These are the best hiking spots in New Jersey

A trip to New Jersey doesn't have to be all about the beach. Our state has some incredible trails, waterfalls, and lakes to enjoy.

From the Pine Barrens to the Appalachian Trail to the hidden gems of New Jersey, you have plenty of options for a great hike. Hiking is such a great way to spend time outdoors and enjoy nature, plus it's a great workout.

Before you go out on the trails and explore some of our listeners' suggestions, I have some tips on hiking etiquette from the American Hiking Society.

If you are going downhill and run into an uphill hiker, step to the side and give the uphill hiker space. A hiker going uphill has the right of way unless they stop to catch their breath.

Always stay on the trail, you may see side paths, unless they are marked as an official trail, steer clear of them. By going off-trail you may cause damage to the ecosystems around the trail, the plants, and wildlife that live there.

You also do not want to disturb the wildlife you encounter, just keep your distance from the wildlife and continue hiking.

Bicyclists should yield to hikers and horses. Hikers should also yield to horses, but I’m not sure how many horses you will encounter on the trails in New Jersey.
If you are thinking of bringing your dog on your hike, they should be leashed, and make sure to clean up all pet waste.

Lastly, be mindful of the weather, if the trail is too muddy, it's probably best to save your hike for another day.

I asked our listeners for their suggestions of the best hiking spots in New Jersey, check out their suggestions:

15 sensational places to visit in Seaside Heights and Seaside Park

From amusement rides to all the boardwalk food and lots of water fun, Seaside Heights and neighboring Seaside Park have endured as a family friendly spot for all ages.

Along the way, the Seaside Heights Boardwalk and Casino Pier have been struck with tragic disasters - such as fire, Superstorm Sandy and another fire. Both have proven their resiliency through rebuilding and expansion.

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