WEST ORANGE / SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The ongoing conflict between county residents and the administration of Essex County regarding a proposed amphitheater at the Turtle Back Zoo continued at two local council meetings last week. At the Sept. 10 West Orange Township Council meeting, a resolution was passed asking the county not to develop any more of South Mountain Reservation until a master plan is presented, and at the Sept. 9 South Orange Board of Trustees meeting, Essex County Deputy Director of Parks Kate Hartwyk made a presentation about the project. Residents at both meetings spoke out against the amphitheater.
The discussions 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 a 500-seat 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 for a feasibility study. Both resolutions passed with a vote of 7-0; Freeholder Romaine Graham was absent, and Freeholder Tyshammie Cooper abstained.
The project has seen much opposition, including from the Maplewood Township Committee, which passed a resolution at its Aug. 6 meeting asking the county to suspend expansion into the reservation. West Orange’s resolution is similar, urging the county to present a master plan for the zoo before any further development takes place. It passed with a vote of 4-1, with Councilwoman Michelle Casalino casting the only opposing vote.
Residents were supportive of the resolution, though several suggested edits they thought should be made. While the resolution says the zoo is a self-sufficient facility, resident Sally Malanga argued that it runs on taxpayer dollars.
“That is not really the case,” Malanga said at the Sept. 10 meeting. “The zoo has requested and received millions of dollars in Open Space Trust Fund money and it is still requesting money for the amphitheater, so it is not totally self-sufficient.”
Despite the suggestion, the council chose not to change the language in the resolution. Malanga also discussed the importance of the council taking action.
“While it is not a legally binding document, it is a moral document that has to convey a sense of the community’s understanding of the situation at the Turtle Back Zoo and the reservation,” she said.
Joyce Rudin spoke at the West Orange meeting as well about how the zoo has grown in recent years; the new amphitheater could take an acre of land out of the reservation.
“It was originally set out to be 15.5 acres,” Rudin said of the zoo. “It has since expanded 10 more acres. This further proposed amphitheater could possibly go into our reservation at least another acre.”
Speaking last during public comments, Essex County Public Information Director Anthony Puglisi responded to some of the comments made at the West Orange council meeting.
“When we talk about the zoo being self-sufficient, that includes all revenue that comes into the zoo,” he said. “That does include admission fees, that does include grants that we receive, it includes revenue that we receive from McLoone’s from the treetop adventure course and also the mini golf course. If you look at zoos across the country, a lot of zoos are not profit-making entities, so without these additional attractions, they would not survive. That’s what we mean when we say self-sufficient.”
Puglisi also clarified that the theater has not yet been designed, something Hartwyk reiterated this at the South Orange meeting.
“The contract that was awarded to the engineering firm covered a wide scope of services, starting with surveying the property to see if it’s feasible,” Puglisi said. “Then designing it, then helping us through the construction and so forth. There really is nothing to present to anyone at this point except the concept.”
In her explanation of why she voted against the resolution, Casalino said she didn’t want to pass a resolution that she felt would be telling the county what they can or can’t do.
“I deeply appreciate my colleagues that spent time working on this, so by not moving to support it I’m not disrespecting it in any way,” she said at the meeting. “I understand the concerns and the passion that’s out there. As an elected official I have a tough time telling other bodies of government how to do their job, and I feel like this resolution does that. I appreciate all of the advocacy on this, but I have to have a little faith that they’re going to do the right thing. If they don’t, I would then revisit having to go with a resolution.”
At the Aug. 13 West Orange Township Council meeting, Casalino said she would be supportive of a resolution similar to the one she eventually voted against Sept. 10. In a phone interview on Sept. 13, she said she wants to give the county more time to present a plan for where the amphitheater would go and what it would look like.
“I was supportive of looking at it, depending on the language,” Casalino said in the interview. “I understand where my colleagues are coming from, but I want to give the county more time to come to us before we hit them with a resolution. I wouldn’t want that to happen to us. I want to give them a chance to do the right thing.”
When asked if she would reconsider passing a resolution if the amphitheater does in fact get built and encroach onto the reservation, Casalino said she would have to see the plan first.
“I’m not going to predict what I would do without the information about it,” she said. “But I want to give the county a chance because that’s what I would want. I hope to work out concerns with meetings and directly working with them instead of a resolution. I’ve had favorable results that way.”
Casalino’s fellow council members disagreed with her.
“To me, all we’re asking is for them to prioritize their plans,” Councilwoman Susan McCartney said at the meeting. “What I was trying to stress was that before they come to the Planning Board for a courtesy hearing, we want to see a master plan. Before they eat into any of the acreage that’s up there we’re asking for a master plan so we can see what the conceptual idea is. It’s just requesting and prioritizing what they bring before the Planning Board.”
Councilwoman Cindy Matute-Brown also said she does not believe passing the resolution is telling the county what to do.
“We are elected officials, but we are also constituents who elect a Board of Chosen Freeholders and a county executive to represent out needs and our voices as well,” she said at the meeting. “I think the more voices that come together to say we all share these concerns, it’s not implausible to say we want to press pause until a master plan is given. This is not me saying I doubt what the county can and can’t do or will or won’t do. The county has made tremendous improvements to schools that I’ve been in and in parks. I just think that at this point when we’re looking at an Amazon burning and the highest, record-setting heat that has happened here, there is a concern with how much we take away from our open space.”
The South Orange Board of Trustees had also discussed passing a resolution at previous meetings, but wanted to wait until representatives from the county could attend a meeting. Hartwyk provided information about what the amphitheater could be and highlighted changes that were made to the administration’s wish list.
“We average approximately 2,000 students a day,” she said at the Sept. 9 meeting. “Those students have the opportunity to have a small classroom-style presentation with our education department. Currently there are four classrooms, and they can accommodate approximately 30 students. On an average day during the school year, we can only provide education programs to about 150 students. To push our message of conservation and wildlife education, we want to touch as many students as possible with our mission to inspire them to action and among wildlife.”
South Orange Trustee Steve Schnall told Hartwyk that community members are concerned about the amphitheater project because of the possibility it will take away open space on the reservation, and also due to the fact that there is no definitive plan yet for where it will go.
“I think the concern from this board and this community is the space that is being used that is not in the current footprint,” Schnall said at the Sept. 9 meeting. “You should be able to draw us a map and say ‘Here’s the new land that we’re developing that used to be empty land but will be used for other purposes.’ That is what we would like to see.”
Hartwyk again said there is no site for the project yet, and this is one of the elements the engineering firm was hired to determine.
Schnall’s sentiments were echoed by South Orange resident Dan Dietrich during the public comment portion of the BOT meeting.
“Are we just going to keep, every couple of years, chopping up pieces of the reservation until there’s no reservation left except for some playgrounds?” he asked, adding that there are alternative ways to educate a larger number of students. “You need more docents, you need more professional staff to spend time with these kids for the two hours that they’re there. Instead of building a facility to sit them in, walk them around. You don’t need to keep building to reach kids. You can reach them one on one, right in front of them.”
Trustee Walter Clarke agreed.
“One of my concerns is the creeping takeover of the reservation itself,” Clarke said. “I understand that what has been developed there are fairly unique elements and for a lot of people, that zoo is going to be access to great natural situations that they would not have otherwise. But I’m afraid that it’s coming at the expense of the reservation itself, which is a very unique asset here. One of my main concerns with this project is that there isn’t any sense of scope for where it stops. The sooner that we could get to that sort of thing, the better.”
Clarke and Trustee Donna Coallier had numerous questions about the environmental impact of the project and whether a county environmental commission would be consulted during the process. Clarke also wanted to know if there is a plan to address the animals and plants that would be displaced as a result of building the structure.
“We have not yet determined the exact scope of how much space the theater itself will take up, so I don’t think I can answer that question,” Hartwyk said.
When the trustees asked what has changed about the plan for the amphitheater, Hartwyk said that a large pool and several smaller ones have been eliminated. However, items such as lighting systems for the amphitheater, a roof structure for the stage and LED panels, are still part of the plan.
Trustee Bob Zuckerman wanted to know where the demand for an amphitheater is coming from; Hartwyk responded that it came from accreditation agencies. The zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, the Zoo and Aquarium Association, and the American Humane program.
“The passive walking through the zoo and just kind of observing animals is not reaching those students in terms of inspiring them to action,” Hartwyk said. “The demand for the habitat theater is not driven by the student-teacher request, but more so by the accrediting bodies.”
Zuckerman also asked if the zoo’s accreditations would be at risk if the amphitheater is not built, as county officials intend it to be.
“Certainly these are new directives and mandates coming from our accreditation bodies,” Hartwyk said. “I cannot say how we would be seen if we were shown to be failing in one of these areas.”
Trustee Karen Hartshorn Hilton, like the members of the West Orange Township Council, said at the Sept. 9 meeting that she is concerned about the lack of a master plan. Hartwyk couldn’t address the concerns raised other than to say the master plan will be released by the end of the year.
South Orange Village President Sheena Collum asked Hartwyk about the status of the $4 million in state funding that was supposed to go to the zoo, which Gov. Phil Murphy froze in July. Hartwyk replied that replacement funds are still to be determined, but that money to pay for the amphitheater would not come from taxpayers.
Turtle Back Zoo docent Lisa DeVose, who lives in Hawthorne, spoke in support of building the amphitheater at the Sept. 9 meeting. She began her volunteer career as a docent at the Bronx Zoo, and moved to the Turtle Back Zoo about five years ago.
“My role at the zoo is to interact with guests and answer questions, and promote our message of conservation,” DeVose said. “But I am only one person, so that limits the number of people I can reach. The proposed amphitheater would allow us to reach a larger group of visitors at the zoo. By having a designated area with theater-style seating, we will be able to have a larger audience. Being able to share these animals helps share our conservation message.”
Montclair resident Kurt Schansinger, another docent at the zoo, also spoke to the South Orange trustees in support of the project.
“I believe we should be celebrating the zoo’s successes, not fearing it,” he said. “We should be encouraging its efforts to enhance and improve the experience for its nearly 1 million visitors, not impeding them.”
The trustees agreed that more work needs to be done to look at the environmental impact of the amphitheater on the reservation, with more input from local residents who have expertise. Collum said that because parts of the proposal have changed, she didn’t feel comfortable taking action with a resolution. She instead suggested sending a letter to the county administration that outlines the concerns of the BOT.
“I don’t think we have enough information yet on what’s actually being developed,” she said at the Sept. 9 meeting. “I’m uncomfortable taking formal action without us having information, but I think we can take action on the items that are important to us. I think this is more an issue of, we contribute significantly to the county and to the open space funds; we have a lot of people who have a vested interest; and we want to be a part of the process, not just learn about massive changes coming our way with a big budget associated with them, without us having the chance to share our thoughts.”