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SANDY HOOK DEAL GETS FRESH SCRUTINY

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A federal watchdog agency will look into the circumstances under which a Rumson developer obtained rights to convert former military housing at Fort Hancock into commercial space on Sandy Hook without showing he has the money to do the job, newspapers are reporting today.

Sandy Hook Partners, headed by Rumson’s James Wassel, has gotten repeated extensions to obtain financing for the work, whereas similar projects elsewhere in the U.S. were required to show proof of financing before winning approval, opponents of the deal contend.

From the Star-Ledger:

Lawrence Luttrell, the attorney representing Save Sandy Hook, said word of the inspector general’s probe is welcome. He said Wassel has continually blamed the litigation for his lack of financing — even though it began well after Wassel should have had the money in place.

“We’re pleased that somebody’s finally looking into this because it’s absolutely insane how long this has been going on,” he said.

The National Parks Service selected Sandy Hook Partners in 2004 to rehabilitate 36 buildings at the northern end of Sandy Hook into bed-and-breakfasts, cafes and private businesses. Since then, park service has granted the partnership four extensions — the most recent on June 30 — giving Sandy Hook Partners until June 30, 2008 to show it has the financial backing to complete the work.

Now, the Office of the Inspector General of the federal Department of the Interior will look into the arrangement, it told Cong. Frank Pallone by letter yesterday. Pallone has been calling for the probe into the selection of Sandy Hook Partners, which he called “a debacle.”

Wassel could not be reached for comment, both the Ledger and the Asbury Park Press reported.

Save Sandy Hook, which opposes commercialization of the federal property, is in litigation against the developer. At least one of the group’s members is dubious that that inspector general, which looked into financial arrangements of the deal in 2003, can be impartial.

From the Press:

Peter O’Such Jr., a critic of the lease agreement, said there is the potential for a conflict of interest in an investigation by the Inspector General’s Office because that office and the park service are both part of the Interior Department.

“I applaud Congressman Pallone’s effort to do this,” said O’Such of Fair Haven. “I’m apprehensive the investigation will bear any fruit.”

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