Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Politics of Open Space

Friday morning I got an email from one of my neighbors.

We’ve won the fight. Governor Christie has dedicated himself to preserving the 160+ acres of vacated property at Greystone as open space. This means that it will only be used for parks and passive recreation – no housing or commercial development!! As for the historic buildings, we do not yet know their fate. What matters is that no matter [what] happens with the buildings, the land is protected as green open space!

I have written before about the good and bad of living near 600 acres of open space. The old mental hospital was closed in 2000 by another Republican Gov. Christie - Christie Whitman - after years of bad publicity involving abuse of patients. A smaller, more modern facility was built at one end of the state property. The rest of the land, about 400 acres, was sold by the legislature for $1 to Morris County in 2001.

When my husband and I first moved to Morris Plains in 1993 I walked up Central Avenue to the steps of the old administration office, a hulking stone building whose exterior has been used in movies and on TV, including an episode of “House.”

Along Central Ave. were other hulking stone buildings where the patients had been kept. Although empty, the whole area was eerie and I quickly left. Since the county took over many of the large buildings - although not the administration building - have been pulled down. Some of the resulting space is now used for athletic fields. I walk there and it is no longer eerie and I have found a lot of interesting birds.

But after the new hospital was built a lot of that 200 acres of state-owned land was left over.

The governor in power by then, a Democrat by the name of Jon Corzine - the same man who is now in trouble for some bad bets he made on Europe that sent his company, MF Global, into bankruptcy court - thought the land should be sold for housing or commercial use. A group was set up to study the possibility.

This is when the organization created by my neighbor and a lot of others, Preserve Greystone, came into being. New Jersey is already overbuilt. Go to central NJ and count the number of farms for sale or the number of McMansion developments that sprang up on former farm land to get an idea of what could've happened to the Greystone land.

Had Corzine been successful, the little borough of Morris Plains would’ve become a very different place and a lot of us would’ve moved. While Greystone is in Parsippany, most of the traffic, already bad, would’ve been coming though my town’s streets.

But Corzine lost his re-election bid and Chris Christie, whose previous political job before becoming U.S. Attorney under George W. Bush had been on the Morris County Board of Freeholders, was elected. Preserve Greystone waited to see what the new governor would do.

With a reputation for wanting to do as much as possible to bring business to the state, even if that means weakening a lot of the laws that protect our land, water and air, no one could be sure what that would be.

I was amused by his press release, which read in part:
"My Administration is committed to implementing a plan that finally provides a responsible resolution for the future of the shuttered facilities at Greystone Park and the property they sit on. By doing so, we are fulfilling the state’s obligation to clean up this dormant site in an environmentally and fiscally sound manner."

Of course, the man was elected in January 2009 and he waited a helluva long time to decide to be the Housekeeper-in-Chief. With state funding to towns and counties cut hard by his administration it‘s a wonder he found the $27 million to do this cleanup at all.

Or is it?

As I said, I got the email Friday. That day the Star-Ledger ran an article about the Greystone plan.

On Saturday morning I went to the Post Office early and got the mail from Thursday and Friday. In it I found the mailing pictured here.

I got a sick feeling looking at these two Republicans announcing how they and others had procured Greystone’s freedom from development, and urging me and others to vote for them and other Republican candidates.

Notice there is no mention of Preserve Greystone.

Was this all a coordinated plan to help the Republicans stay in power in Morris County - as if the Democrats were putting up much of an opposition?

I have no doubt as to the sincerity of my neighbor’s bipartisan organization and its hard work in giving Christie the push he needed to finally do something.

But I don’t think it is any coincidence the Republican governor should announce this plan the same day the Republican candidates for borough council sent me a mailing proclaiming their part in it.

Politics as usual.

I got the same sick feeling in 2002 when Democrat Jim McGreevey became governor, threatening to undo the legislature‘s approval of that $1 land sale.

He said it was a giveaway to the “rich people” of Morris County and the land should be used for low-income housing. McGreevey knew that while a mainly Republican county, the towns of Morristown, Dover and others tend to vote Democrat. They are not rich towns.

But he was playing to his more solidly Democrat urban base elsewhere in the state.

It was an insult to those of us middle-class Democrats who happen to live in Morris County.

By the way, McGreevey was mayor of Woodbridge Township in Middlesex County before running for governor. Woodbridge is one of the worst examples of overbuilt suburban sprawl in the state.

Politics as usual.

Just like Corzine and his plan for commercializing the remaining state land. Just like the Republicans running for council grabbing the coattails of movements like Preserve Greystone to proclaim their part in the victory.

It’s hard not to be cynical.

At least Greystone remains open, a shelter from suburban sprawl and a buffer against the kind of build-out a lot of other towns allowed, taxing their resources and changing their character.

In this case I guess we of Morris Plains are indeed rich, and very lucky.