Supreme Court arbitrator suggests dividing Ellis Island N.Y., N.J. would split up land, historic buildings


Ruling in a dispute that kept New York and New Jersey at loggerheads for 200 years, an arbitrator appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court recommended yesterday that Ellis Island be divided between the two, drawing the line largely where New Jersey wanted it.

The recommendation, which invites inevitable comparisons to King Solomon's ruling, leaves the museum and the major monuments of the famous immigration station in New York's hands. But New Jersey would gain control over about 22 acres of landfill added to the island, starting in 1890, for the construction of hospital and administration buildings.

Since the island is a national park, the recommendation, even if upheld by the full Supreme Court, is not expected to change its day-to-day operations.

But the change would be a blow to New York, which has claimed bragging rights over the island that has become the symbol of the immigrant experience. Forty percent of Americans trace their roots to someone who arrived in the New World via Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954.

New Jersey wants to claim any economic benefits if long-postponed restoration plans lead to a hotel or convention center, and wants to build a footbridge to attract tourists. The state would also gain a share of the tax revenue generated by the 425 people who work on the island and the $5 million in food and souvenirs snapped up by 1.65 million annual visitors.

New York officials and preservationists attacked the decision, claiming it would create a jigsaw-puzzle-like pastiche of divided control that would become a legal nightmare.

"Beyond our legal proof, New York's claim to Ellis Island is clearly and indelibly inscribed in the hearts and beliefs of the millions of immigrants who set foot here," said New York state Attorney General Dennis Vacco. "This recommendation is not just contrary to the history of Ellis Island, but if allowed to stand, could threaten its future as well. For the first time, Ellis Island would be exposed to a hodgepodge of preservation rules."

New Jersey officials gloated, and wasted no time in ranking themselves right up there with New York as an immigrant gateway.

"This is a recognition of New Jersey's place in history," said Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. "It is a matter of pride for the state. It's a recognition that both New York and New Jersey have served as a gateway for millions of Americans who have made a real TC difference in the state and across the nation. We are very pleased with it."

The recommendation is expected to be reviewed by the full Supreme Court in its term starting in October.

The Constitution, envisioning the day that states might summon gunboats to settle their disputes, gave the Supreme Court jurisdiction over such border skirmishes.

Pub Date: 4/02/97

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