Pledges forgotten, local governments repurpose federally funded parks

An aging sign points the way to Lake Texoma State Park. Developers bought
the land for a luxury development with a marina and golf courses.
Paul Joseph Brown/InvestigateWest

The government promised that the public would get parks where citizens could exercise and stay strong – shared open spaces that would be theirs forever, places that would inspire and invigorate.

But one park became a Las Vegas hotel. Another was almost turned into a beachfront McDonalds. Another is being converted into an upscale private resort in Oklahoma.  And in New York City, the National Park Service allowed the New York Yankees, the nation’s richest baseball franchise, to build a parking garage atop public ball fields that needy kids at the local schools didn’t see replaced for six years.

Forty-eight years after Congress and President John F. Kennedy promised parks to the public, the budget-battered National Park Service program that awarded $3.9 billion-plus to state and local governments to buy or improve those parks has routinely allowed the land to be converted to other uses, records and interviews by InvestigateWest show. Frequently, critics contend, these transactions violate federal law and regulations requiring that federally funded recreational acreage be replaced by lands of “reasonably equivalent” financial and recreational value.

Now, with tough times crimping cities’ budgets, parks advocates say they are seeing increasing efforts to privatize parks funded under the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act.

“Cities are just desperate for funding to keep schools open and what-have-you, and that becomes a big threat,” said Huey Johnson, the former California natural resources secretary who founded the parks-advocacy group Defense of Place. “The place the cities turn is, ‘Well let’s sell the parks.’ . . .  This is really affecting the quality of people’s lives.”

Heart of Michigan park sacrificed for private golf course

On the shores of Lake Michigan, a private golf course and housing development, seen here in 2009, sit on public land once protected under the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act. (Robert McClure/InvestigateWest)

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. — In this predominantly black town with the lowest per-capita income anywhere in this hard-hit Rust Belt state, municipal leaders allowed a development group to take over the heart of a city park that fronts onto Lake Michigan — land originally bequeathed to the people of Benton Harbor forever.

Opponents claim the land deal violates the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act. In 1977, Benton Harbor accepted money from the fund for park development under the condition that it remain forever open to public or, if closed, be replaced with land of equal fair market value and reasonably equivalent recreational use.

Harbor Shores Community Redevelopment, Inc., a consortium of Whirlpool Foundation and two other non-profit groups, used the city land in the center of Jean Klock Park to build three holes of a “Jack Nicklaus Signature” golf course. The course anchors a $500 million development billed on the developer’s website as combining “the charm of a small town with the year-round amenities of a world-class destination, ideally located just 90 minutes from downtown Chicago.”

Annual memberships at the golf course start at $3,750. This in a town where the median income is $17,301, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, and where the 2010 U.S. Census found 48 percent of residents live below the poverty line.

The Benton Harbor case illustrates how local governments, looking for economic development, are turning over federally protected parks in exchange for the promise of cash, jobs, or both.  The outcome can be park replacements of unequal value, one of multiple failures InvestigateWest has identified in the administration of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Proponents of these exchanges say the infusions of cash that come with them can result in better facilities in newer parks as well as jobs.

Oklahoma park bought and paid for

A birds-eye view of the campgrounds at Lake Texoma State Park in July 2009
Paul Joseph Brown/InvestigateWest

KINGSTON, Okla. – For decades, Lake Texoma State Park was one of Oklahoma’s most popular and profitable state parks. It was a place of simple pleasures, with a lodge, cabins and campsites priced modestly enough that almost anyone could afford to relax for a few days beside a cool lake along the border of two of America’s hottest states.

But facing mounting maintenance costs for the neglected park, the state government authorized its sale in 2005 and, after an appeal to Congress, closed a $14.6 million deal with a private development firm in 2008. The transfer was legal as long as Oklahoma agreed to create a new public park of equal value in return. Lake Texoma, which has received $1.6 million in federal grants, is one of thousands of public parks across the country improved with money from the federal Land and Water Conversation Fund. Parks that receive such funding by law must be open to the public in perpetuity unless replaced with land of equal fair market value and “reasonably equivalent” recreational use.

For the developer, Pointe Vista Development, L.L.C, it was a rich score. The company plans to build a $500-million-plus gated retreat of condos, hotels, fancy homes and golf courses. Restaurants, swimming pools, a gym and a spa are going in. The developers are getting tax incentives to do it, too.

Four years later the replacement park is still not built, even as the last state park cabins are slated for demolition.

The Lake Texoma case illustrates how states can disregard their legal obligations to federally protected parkland. As InvestigateWest has reported, the National Park Service, which is responsible for overseeing the conversion program, does not have adequate controls in place to ensure that parks that receive federal grants comply with the law.

Kids wait six years for ballfields taken over by Yankee Stadium

Macombs Dam Park under construction in December 2007
during the building of the new Yankee Stadium.
Flickr/Benjamin Kabak

In the poorest Congressional district in the country, the nation’s wealthiest baseball franchise took away kids’ baseball fields.

For six years.

With National Park Service approval.

And it was all legal.

Those South Bronx baseball fields sat in Macombs Dam Park, across the street from the old Yankee Stadium. For years, they hosted home games of nearby high schools as well as neighborhood pickup baseball. Kids too poor to attend a New York Yankees game at least could try to pitch a no-hitter in the shadow of the Bronx Bombers’ aging palace.

Like more than three million acres of public parkland added or improved across the country since 1965, Macombs Dam Park and its baseball fields are entitled to special protection because they received federal grants from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. In 1979, money from the fund helped to pay for the fields, a running track, walkways and new park lighting. By law, parks that receive this funding are supposed to remain open to the public forever or be replaced by land of comparable use and value.

But there’s a catch. The law and the rules that flow from it have no limits on how long it can take to replace a destroyed park once the new acreage is purchased. There’s no hard deadline. And so the kids of the South Bronx waited six years.

During that time, construction crews also obliterated nearly 400  trees that helped clean the air  in a neighborhood where hospitalization rates for asthma are five times what they are nationally. The new parking lots, including the one that went on top of the old ballfields, made it much easier to bring more than 3,300 extra cars into the neighborhood dozens of times each year when the Yankees play.

“It’s absolutely shameful,” said Geoffrey Croft, executive director of the non-profit NYC Parks Advocates and the most outspoken critic of the transaction.

The National Park Service official who oversaw the deal, Jack Howard, acknowledged that the baseball fields were way overdue when they finally opened in April of this year – three years after the new stadium’s hoopla-filled opening day in April 2009.

“Sometimes things take a little more time than you’d hope,” Howard said. “We were hopeful things would be done in a timely manner but sometimes there are extenuating circumstances.”

The List of Grants

The Park Service is finding out about more closures and conversions of federally protected parks than ever before. But no one knows just how many. Even today, the Park Service doesn’t have a full list of the parks that are protected under the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act.

The database compiled by InvestigateWest is a starting point. It lists every LWCF grant made between 1965 and 2011. Each record has a project name; a sponsor, which is often a town or city; and the state and county where the project took place. We invite readers to find parks in their hometowns and report back on any parks that have been closed or converted.

Choose your state to begin searching: