By Kevin Coughlin
Preserve Greystone’s Hail Mary pass fell short on Wednesday.
Superior Court Judge Stephan Hansbury called it “a very creative attempt,” and expressed sentimental feelings for the former Greystone Park State Psychiatric Hospital. But after an hour-long hearing in Morristown, he ruled that he could not halt the state’s ongoing demolition of the 139-year-old Kirkbride Building.
The state Appellate Division already has twice denied Preserve Greystone’s requests to prevent the demolition, and another appeal is pending there, Hansbury noted.
“I don’t have jurisdiction over the Appellate Division…though sometimes I wish I did,” the chancery judge said, eliciting laughter from a courtroom packed with people wearing yellow “Save Historic Greystone” badges.
Attorney James Sullivan Jr. had sought a temporary stay, to buy time to gather testimony from state historical officials and build his case.
He warned of “irreparable harm” — the complete destruction of the Second Empire Victorian structure, America’s largest building prior to the Pentagon — during the months it will take for the Appellate Division to decide the present appeal.
Surprisingly, the Kirkbride Building is not on the state or national historic registers. But another Greystone building, known as the Illuminating Gas Plant, does have an historical designation.
Although the structures are 800 feet apart and separated by Old Dover Road, Sullivan said both are part of the same historic district. Demolition of Kirkbride would “encroach” upon and negate the historical significance of the gas plant, he said.
As such, the lawyer argued, the state Treasury department should have sought authorization from the state Department of Environmental Protection, as mandated by the state Historic Places Act, before encroaching upon the gas plant by dismantling Kirkbride.
Judge Hansbury wasn’t buying it.
“There is no reasonable probability of success on the merits that one building will affect the other,” he said.
Sullivan also invoked the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, suggesting demolition posed a “potential public health risk to the people of Morris County” from polychlorinated biphenyls. He wanted a DEP review.
The judge did not see any link to encroachment on the gas plant, the main thrust of Sullivan’s argument.
“The issue before me is the Kirkbride Building,” said Hansbury, who noted that he grew up near Greystone and once owned a home nearby.
He said he remembers when cows roamed the sprawling grounds and the state “had a guy who went around setting all the clocks.” His aunt even worked at the hospital.
“My knowledge of Greystone is pretty significant,” Hansbury said. “But I can’t give you what you want.”
At one point, Sullivan took responsibility for procedural errors that he blamed for the appellate denials, explaining he has been working pro bono, after hours.
He implored the judge not to penalize the preservationists for his own professional “inadequacy.”
Hansbury assured him he would never do that. But the judge concurred with state Deputy Attorney General Philip Espinosa that his court lacked jurisdiction.
“A lot of the plaintiff’s argument is well intended,” Hansbury said. “It’s about Kirkbride. I don’t have the authority to reverse two decisions by the Appellate Division.”
Developers have submitted seven proposals to re-purpose Kirkbride. But the Treasury department has deemed the building too costly to save.
The Northstar Contracting Group, as low bidder, was hired to perform the $34 million demolition of 26 structures at the former hospital, according to the Treasury department. Demolition of Kirkbride, which closed in 2008, started last month.
The property is scheduled to become park land for Morris County. Up to 65 percent of demolition wastes will be recycled, and Greystone’s history will be acknowledged with a website, an historical survey and interpretive signage, said Treasury spokesman Joseph Perone.
He said taxpayers have spent nearly $1.2 million on maintenance, security and utilities for Greystone since 2009.
“We empathize with the concerns of preservationists that the Kirkbride Building is being razed,” Perone said in a statement.
“However, we continue to move forward with the project, including our own ways of preserving the hospital’s history. The ultimate goal is to convert the property into open space and turn it over to the Parks Commission for the enjoyment of Morris County residents.”
As crestfallen supporters filed from the courtroom, Preserve Greystone Vice President William Needham tried to stay upbeat.
“We attempted to stay the demolition unsuccessfully, but I don’t believe this will be our last attempt,” Needham said.
“There is still a pending case in the Appellate Division. Our attorney is putting up a good fight, pro bono, working long hours. Win or lose, he should be commended.”