STATEN ISLAND — Every treasure hunter who hoped to hit pay dirt by digging in city parks and beaches last year came up empty-handed.
Records from the city Parks Department show that people who regularly ply its green spaces with metal detectors didn’t find anything of historical importance or significant value in 2013.
Last year the Parks Department issued 548 permits to metal detect in certain parks and beaches. At the end of each year, permit holders are required to file a “significant object” report itemizing any finds of “historical, paleontological or archaeological nature” or “any coin or object whose value significantly exceeds its face value.”
All of the 185 permit holders who actually filed reports for 2013 wrote that they found diddly squat, records show. Five permit holders mentioned that they managed to locate some change by waving their wands and listening for beeps — but the coins weren’t worth anything.
Metal-detector hobbyists say there’s a reason they never make any good discoveries — the Parks Department bans them from many locations.
“I've never found anything significant,” said Richard Pupello, the president of the Staten Island History Hunters Metal Detecting Club. “Any place on the island where there might be stuff like that, we're not allowed to be there.”
Pupello, whose club has more than 100 members, said that if the Parks Department opened up more areas, he and his fellow hobbyists might dig up historical artifacts that could go to museums. He pointed to the off-limits Conference House Park, where key figures in the Revolutionary War, including Ben Franklin, once met for peace talks.
“They don't want us to disturb history. Meanwhile, they'll let history rot away because they'll never find it,” he said.
Some parks like Central Park are completely off limits to the hobbyists, while others allow the pastime but have time and location restrictions. The Parks Department also bans digging and probing within 25 feet of a tree line and on manicured lawns.
Beaches offer the possibility of finding jewelry or rings lost in the surf, but if the finds aren’t that valuable, detectors don’t need to report them.
Janet Lindell wrote in her 2013 “significant object” report that she found a few coins of little value last year on Rockaway Beach.
She said she stopped doing the hobby for a while after Superstorm Sandy because she didn’t want to seem like a “scavenger” looking for victims’ washed-away valuables. The Rockaway resident said now she rarely picks up her $600 Prizm 950 metal detector because the booties aren't bountiful on her home turf.
“I call this poor man’s beach,” Lindell said. “Orchard Beach [in The Bronx] is supposed to be a hot spot for finding stuff. And a lot of people go to Coney Island.”
Members of the Staten Island History Hunters club have had much more success in their searches — though their big discoveries were unearthed on private properties where Civil War battles took place or at other states’ beaches near shipwrecks.
The club, founded in 2007, meets once a month in a building at the Sea View Hospital Rehabilitation Center & Home, where members show off newly discovered items. Some of the hauls include Civil War and Revolutionary War bullets and guns.
One member found a piece of a cannon while scuba-diving off the shore of Conference Park in waters where no permit is required. Another member said he found a World War II Japanese machine gun earlier this year in Breezy Point.
Club member Avery Marder said metal detectors get a bad reputation as “old guys on the beach trying to scrounge a couple of pennies.” In reality he said the hobby attracts history buffs hoping to uncover relics from the past and preserve them.
“I like the history behind it,” Marder said at a recent meeting, pointing to a dug-up Civil War-era button. “I’m the first person to touch that button since the guy popped it off his uniform.”
After Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, the club hoped that a new administration might consider easing the park restrictions. Some members wrote a letter to the mayor asking for help and got a meeting with the Parks Department officials in late July. But they said they don’t see the city making any changes.
“I think it’s unfair,” said John Marchese, 65, who founded the club. “The Parks Department is one-sided. They don’t want to listen to us.”
The Parks Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Pupello said concerns over metal detectors leaving behind dug-up holes are unfounded. He said his club members all follow a code of ethics and go out of their way to replace any divot.
The members also said they have helped out people who lost their wedding rings or jewelry, including a husband whose band fell off in the snow in Central Park two years ago. The husband and his wife asked the club for help. After getting the Parks Department’s approval, club members searched the area of the park where the couple believed the ring went missing.
“Within 15 minutes or less, Harold [Lowenfels] found the ring,” Marder said. “He saved the marriage.”