ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — County residents continue to voice opposition to the Turtle Back Zoo amphitheater proposed by County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. earlier this summer, with several towns speaking out against the project. The Maplewood Township Committee passed a resolution at its Aug. 6 meeting asking the county to suspend expansion of the Aug. 13 South Mountain Recreation Complex into the South Mountain Reservation. At the West Orange Township Council meeting, council members agreed to draft a similar resolution, and intend to vote on it at their next meeting in September.
The reactions were sparked by the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders passing two resolutions at a July 10 meeting that approved the allocation of $600,000 from the Recreation and Open Space Trust Fund to determine the feasibility of building an amphitheater at the Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange. One resolution approved the money and the other approved entering into a professional services contract with French & Parrello Associates to do a feasibility study. Both resolutions passed with a vote of 7-0; Freeholder Romaine Graham was absent, and Freeholder Tyshammie Cooper abstained.
Maplewood Committeewoman Nancy Adams drafted the town’s Aug. 6 resolution with help from the Maplewood Green Team. In a discussion about the resolution at the meeting, Adams said both she and the public are concerned about the county’s lack of transparency throughout the approval process. She said she had previously expressed this concern at a meeting with DiVincenzo and other county representatives, including South Orange Trustee Donna Coallier and West Orange Chief Financial Officer John Gross.
“I indicated to the county at that meeting that our biggest concern was the apparent lack of transparency with regard to this project and the lack of the public giving input,” Adams said at the Aug. 6 Township Committee meeting. “What I made clear to them was that we are hearing opposition to this particular expansion and the concern environmentally with regard to animals not just in the zoo, but in the reservation.”
Adams said Aug. 6 that county officials had expressed concern about Maplewood’s resolution.
“I tried to make it as clear as possible that we weren’t passing a resolution against the county, but rather against this particular project and the money that’s being committed to it,” she said.
Committeeman Greg Lembrich agreed, saying that the resolution should not be seen as an attack on the county.
“I don’t think it has public support and I think it’s important for governing bodies like ours to convey this to the county,” Lembrich said of the amphitheater proposal at the meeting. “The county needs to not take this personally. This is not the township of Maplewood against the county. We are Essex County, we’re residents of Essex County and we want to have a voice in this.”
Maplewood’s resolution passed with a vote of 4-0; Maplewood Deputy Mayor Frank McGehee was absent. Other members of the committee shared their reasoning for voting in favor of it at the meeting. Mayor Vic DeLuca said that until the zoo’s master plan is completed, nothing else should be built.
“I’m not opposed to future expansion of the zoo, but I do think there should be a plan and it should be vetted,” he said at the meeting. “People should have the right to put input there and it should go back and forth. This is not the time for this, without the master plan.”
The master plan was a topic of conversation at the WOTC meeting as well, with Anthony Puglisi, Essex County’s public information director, saying the zoo’s master plan will be completed by the end of the year. He also gave a brief explanation of the history of the amphitheater project.
“It’s more of an education facility, more of an outdoor classroom,” Puglisi said at the Aug. 13 meeting, adding that it had resulted from DiVincenzo and zoo staff making with a wish list of items they would like to see at the zoo when talking about the master plan. “The zoo director suggested that we beef up our education and conservation programs and asked that we create a facility that would fulfill our current needs.”
Zoo Director Michael Kerr did not respond to a request for comment by press time Aug. 20.
There is already an amphitheater at the zoo located across from the reptile house. Puglisi said that facility is flawed because it was not designed for education, as the new amphitheater would be, and there is no proper seating. In addition, there are no walls that would allow animals to be brought to the amphitheater at the current site.
“The zoo has expanded by about 10 acres, and with the amphitheater we’re anticipating it taking up one more acre,” Puglisi said, citing the 500 acres of open space and six new parks that have been created since 2003 when DiVincenzo took office. “The amount of park space and amount of land that’s been preserved is a lot larger than these 11 acres the zoo has taken up.”
Nevertheless, West Orange Township Council members agreed at their July 16 meeting to draft a resolution similar to Maplewood’s, asking the county to suspend development at the zoo.
“I believe in the will of the people and the voice of the people, and that your voices are the influence,” Councilwoman Cindy Matute-Brown said at the meeting. “We are elected to represent your voices. We may not always agree, but I think that I certainly have a responsibility to listen and support what the majority of the residents say.”
Council President Jerry Guarino, and council members Joe Krakoviak and Susan McCartney also said they would support a resolution, but want to see the wording of the initial draft. McCartney asked that the West Orange Environmental Commission and the South Mountain Conservancy be consulted while writing the resolution, and suggested Maplewood’s resolution be used as a model.
“I am not always a big fan of these types of resolutions because I feel, especially in this case, the county will move forward and do what they feel they should do,” Councilwoman Michelle Casalino said at the meeting. “That zoo has come a long way. It was in really bad shape 20 years ago, 15 years ago. They’ve made tremendous progress. But it has gotten to the point where I really feel bad for residents over there. I do enjoy the complex, but I really feel for the neighborhood and the traffic that has occurred there.”
In his comments, Krakoviak reminded that a resolution passed by the council would not legally prevent the county from moving forward with the amphitheater project, if approved by the freeholders. He encouraged residents to continue to address their county representatives.
“All of these comments tonight were really well taken, but I want to suggest that you continue to address the county and the freeholders,” Krakoviak said. “Those are the people you can influence as constituents. I’m very sympathetic to it, I just don’t know what the answer is.”
West Orange Mayor Robert Parisi said he would wait to know more about a resolution before supporting it in a phone interview on Aug. 19. Overall, he thinks the zoo has been a good addition to West Orange, but wants to know more about the project before making a decision about it.
“Obviously there are a lot of residents that are against the expansion and that’s certainly their right,” Parisi said. “Traffic has been a problem there, but overall I think it’s been a great addition. But until we know more about it, I don’t know that I would feel either way about it.”
Maplewood’s sister town, South Orange, has not yet moved forward with a resolution asking the county not to develop the zoo further, and first wants county representatives to attend a South Orange Board of Trustees meeting to present the project.
“We agreed not to take action until they come to a meeting, and we think that’s fair,” village President Sheena Collum said in a phone interview on Aug. 9. She said the BOT is planning to add the presentation to its agenda on Sept. 9.
The Maplewood Township Committee’s resolution and the West Orange Township Council’s discussion about a resolution have garnered widespread support in both towns. Opposition to the amphitheater is widespread, and nearly 9,000 signatures were gathered on a petition started by Our Green West Orange. At both meetings, residents expressed their dismay about the project.
“The original intent and the original design for the zoo was for 15.5 acres,” West Orange resident Joyce Rudin said at Maplewood’s meeting on Aug. 6, and thanked the committee for passing its resolution. “That’s thousands and thousands of open space dollars that have been spent to expand the Turtle Back Zoo into our reservation. We need to stop spending open space money on more development. We need to say no.”
Robert Rashkes, a West Orange resident who lives near the zoo, also thanked the committee at the Maplewood meeting.
“I’m personally affected by the encroachment because I hear all the music and all the noise comes right up to my house all day long,” Rashkes said. “My neighbors and I are very concerned that if they put in an amphitheater we could hear presentations all day long.”
Tracey Woods, chairwoman of the Maplewood Green Team, explained why the resolution was necessary.
“The reason for the residents asking for a resolution is because, over and over in the stakeholder process, we were in a packed room with everyone saying they didn’t support it,” Woods said at the meeting. “We need help from the township in getting our voices heard because that just happens again and again at the stakeholder events when they exist. It’s just been tons of people saying they don’t support it and it’s just getting voted through anyway.”
Residents at the West Orange meeting made similar statements. Elizabeth Redwine, like Rashkes, lives near the zoo and also expressed concern about noise.
“As someone who lives near the zoo and walks in the woods behind the zoo almost every day, it really concerns me that there are all these plans to expand the zoo’s footprint,” Redwine said at the Aug. 13 meeting. “Construction starts early and it’s incredibly loud. That construction is constant, never ending. The zoo as it is now is great. We’re done; I think it’s enough. It really concerns me to hear all these ideas thrown around for further development of the zoo, and I really don’t think it’s in the best interest of our neighborhood and will build into open forest, which is so rare and so important.”
Jacqueline Hendy said she has lived in West Orange for 10 years, and in that time has seen the zoo expand. Now, she wants to see the expansion end.
“In that time I’ve seen the Big Cat Country come to the zoo, I’ve seen the 10 acres being taken for the African Safari, and now we hear just one more acre for this,” Hendy said. “What’s next? One more acre here, five more acres there and pretty soon we have lost one of the biggest assets to our community, which is open space.”