2006-10-05 / Front Page

Save Sandy Hook seeks to continue suit

Developer secures financing for first phase of project
BY LIZ SHEEHAN Correspondent


Save Sandy Hook (SSH) is scrambling to find an attorney to continue its fight to block commercial development on Sandy Hook.

James Coleman, a trustee of the grassroots group, said Monday he has asked the U. S. District Court for an extension of the time in which to file an appeal of the dismissal of a suit brought by SSH because the group must find a new attorney.

The 60-day time period expired at the end of September and Save Sandy Hook has applied for an extension.

Paul Josephson, of Hill Wallack, Princeton, who has been representing SSH, will no longer be involved the case, according to Coleman, who is also named as a plaintiff in the suit brought by SSH against the National Park Service and the developer chosen to rehabilitate historic buildings on Fort Hancock,

Last week, Palisades Financial LLC announced it would finance the Fort Hancock project.

The announcement came more than six years after Rumson developer James Wassel was chosen by the park service to develop at least 36 buildings at historic Fort Hancock on Sandy Hook. Wassel's Sandy Hook Partners subsequently received several years of extensions of a deadline in which the developer was to prove he had the financial ability to complete the first phase of the project.

Billy Procida, CEO of the Fort Lee-based company, said Monday that he had visited the site and expressed his enthusiasm for the Wassel proposal.

He said his firm "would help the government accomplish what it couldn't accomplish itself" by funding the renovation of the historic buildings, most of which date to the late 1800s.

Procida said he thought the project "would be a model" for what the park service could do all over the country, where there are thousands of buildings for which the government doesn't "have the funds for fixing."

"We pride ourselves in making sure all our clients are successful," Procida said. "It's a complicated property. The lawsuit has been a problem."

In December 2004 Save Sandy Hook filed a suit seeking to overturn the 60-year lease granted by the park service to Wassel.

Monmouth County Friends of Clearwater, an environmental group once headquartered at Fort Hancock later joined in the suit.

In June, Josephson, and Irene Dowdy, of the U.S. Attorney's Office, who represented the park service, presented oral arguments before Judge Mary Lou Cooper in the U.S. Federal Court in Trenton.

In July, Cooper issued an opinion dismissing the SSH suit without prejudice and gave the plaintiffs 60 days to respond.

Ronald Heksch, attorney for Wassel, asked Cooper not to grant the extension.

If the extension is granted to SSH, the suit will continue to play a role in the Fort Hancock project.

Procida said his company would hold off with financing until all legal matters regarding the project are cleared up.

Wells said Monday that the park service "was very pleased" that the financing of the project was in place and would bring it "a step closer to preserving" the landmark buildings at the fort.

Asked what would happen if Wassel were to default on the loan from Palisades, Well said if that "unlikely" event happened, the lender would "Take over and operate (the property) under the lease.""

"This is a very unique situation," Wells added.

Procida said that he has developed many properties in cooperation with government entities, but this would be the first time he has been involved with a project in a national park.

He said his company deals with value added property. In this case Procida said "our money would add value" to the buildings which he said were vacant eyesores and not generating income.

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