JERSEY CITY, NJ – The snow owl was first seen just past the 18th hole of one of the most expensive golf courses ever built.
The bird rested on a sandy beach full of shells and driftwood on the edge of Liberty State Park. Waves splashed along the New Jersey shoreline of the Hudson River when birds with binoculars stood in awe two years ago.
Nearby, behind a large black fence, were the willow-lined fairways of Liberty National, an exclusive private golf course where luminaries such as Tiger Woods and Brooks Koepka played, and where the original initiation fee for members was about one million dollars.
The contrast between the lush club and the adjacent park, with its hodgepodge of roughly hewn public facilities – both with stunning views of Lower Manhattan inspired by the Statue of Liberty – have been grim since the course opened nearly 14 years ago.
But the two worlds now clash like never before in a showdown The pressure of the Jersey City golf course is extended to almost 22 hectares of public park.
The opening up of land, known as Caven Point, is a migratory bird habitat where spotted sandpipers and American oystercatchers nest near elevated walkways that allow visitors to wander through long reeds and on the sandy beach from March to October. The other half of the year, wildlife is considered too vulnerable to allow access.
But it is there that Liberty National officials say they hope to build three new holes, bringing more of the 18-hole course closer to the telegenic advantage of water and helping to make high-profile PGA Tour events which supporters say they bring economic benefits to the state.
"If we are unable to provide what these tournaments need, they will just go somewhere else that is possible," said Chris Donnelly, a Liberty National spokesperson.
An important vote in state legislation related to that effort is expected on Monday, marking the final battle in a long-running history of park lawyers fending off private developers hoping to build in the state park.
"To me, it's actually just an obscenity," said Rick Cordner, an avid birdwatcher and treasurer of Friends of Liberty State Park, a group against the expansion of the golf course. "It breaks my heart to think there may be a bulldozer plowing it in for a golf course."
The course was opened on July 4, 2006 and occupies approximately 170 hectares of private land. , much of it was a former toxic wasteland that cost more than $ 250 million to reclaim. It was thought that it was the most expensive golf course ever.
With the establishment of members including President Trump's personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, and Robert K. Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, Liberty National is no stranger to the levers in Trenton and beyond. .
One of the owners, Paul B. Fireman, the founder of Reebok who sold his company for $ 3.8 billion to Adidas, and his family are generous campaign donors and contributed about $ 420,000 to Democrats between 2009 and Republicans in New Jersey and last year, state records show.
The Liberty National lobbyist, Eric Shuffler, worked for two New Jersey governors and was named government member of government leader Philip D. Murphy after his election in 2017.
Sir. Murphy, a democrat, refused through a spokesperson, Mahen Gunaratna, to discuss the proposed expansion.
"We generally do not comment on outstanding invoices," said Mr. Gunaratna. “But the governor believes that Liberty State Park is a New Jersey treasure that belongs to every family. He is a great advocate of protecting our public land for the benefit of everyone. "
The Liberty National country wants to lease for an unspecified amount that has been purchased with state and federal funds, including money intended to save land and water. The state would oversee every land conversion and domestic secretary should also sign on the plan, according to the state's Department of Environmental Protection.
Activists have said the proposed land use could be a precedent and vowed to contest it in court if necessary.
"If you can buy land purchased with land and water conservation dollars, you are putting most of our national parks at risk," said Greg Remaud, director of NY / NJ Baykeeper, a nun -profit conservation organization. "It is one of our basic precedents for land protection."
Mr. Donnelly said the new holes would be used to clear other land on the runway for staging and hospitality activities that are vital to attracting PGA Tour events such as the Presidential Cup and the Northern Trust.
"Each of these PGA events, each contributing tens of millions of dollars to the economy of Hudson County and New Jersey," Mr. Shuffler said during a hearing on the Senate budget last month.
A spokeswoman for the state's Economic Development Authority said the agency did not estimate the economic value for the state from the four PGA tournaments that have been held at Liberty National since 2009.
One PGA Tour spokesperson, Joel Schuchmann, confirmed that the size of Liberty National had become a consideration, especially for the Northern Trust, which is the first event in the FedEx Cup playoffs every year.
"It's true that while the PGA Tour and the FedEx Cup play-offs are specifically growing in stature and interest among our fans, media and partners, so is the need to ensure that the right footprint is present," said the Mr Schuchmann in a statement.
The aim of the club is to move three existing golf holes to Caven Point, to free up space for organizing events and to set up an introductory golf program for children in the region, the First tee. .
In exchange for the right to build, Liberty National said it would provide unspecified park improvement funds, create access to Caven Point beach at certain times, and provide a jitney to people through Liberty State Park.
Golf course officials also say that polluted land would be remediated at Caven Point, but a state spokesperson said the plot was cleaned and deemed safe in 2004 for current use. "Extra cleaning is not required," Larry Hajna, a D.E.P. spokesperson, said in an email.
The club has received support for the NAACP state project, based in part on the promise of programming such as the First Tee.
"Preserving the park is important, but there is much more at stake for the communities we represent," wrote the group president, Richard T. Smith, in a letter supporting the efforts of Liberty National.
But Daoud David Williams, a lifelong resident of Jersey City and a member of the local NAACP, said black leaders in Jersey City were not consulted.
"The person who caught him , "said Mr. Williams about Mr. Smith," I think he's making a big mistake. "Smith didn't call back to ask for comment.
" I think there are ulterior motives for offering a few quotes & # 39; inner-city children & # 39; some lessons in golf, "said Mr. Williams, 76.
This is not the first time the club has tried to expand to Caven Point. It tried to acquire land during the first construction of the course and again during the declining days of the government of Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican.
The Department of Environmental Protection silently suspended the proposal when Mr. Murphy took office, but the idea never died completely.
This latest effort is bound by legislation, the Liberty State Park Protection Act, which is intended to prevent all but small private development in the vast park, which has been repeatedly viewed for a variety of -profit companies, including a marina, amusement parks and a racetrack.
The Friends of Liberty State Park, led by Sam Pesin, whose father was one of those responsible for the creation of the park, have been facing private developers for decades and had hoped that the Protection Act would finally secure the land as a & # 39; free and green public park & # 39 ;.
Liberty National is lobbying to change legislation to allow the state to request bids to develop Caven Point.
"This is a billionaire attack on privatization the 1 percent," said Mr Pesin, 70,
The powerful chairman of the budget committee, senator Paul A. Sarlo, a democrat, strongly suggested supporting the proposed enlargement during the hearing. "There is a lot of money that we honestly leave here on the table," he said.
More than 50 organizations have signed an opposition letter and are planning a protest rally in the park on Saturday.
Mayor Steven Fulop of Jersey City and the sponsor of the bill in the Assembly, Raj Mukherji, are unequivocal in their opposition to the golf course expansion.
Sir. Fulop said he is grateful for the extensive philanthropy of the PGA and Mr. Fireman in Jersey City.
"But there are things, from my point of view, that are inviolable and where we are never willing to compromise," said Mr. Fulop. "This is one of them."