WEST ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The West Orange Planning Board made seven recommendations to Essex County when the plan for a 500-seat amphitheater was presented at a Jan. 8 courtesy hearing featuring three witnesses and extensive questioning from the public. The Planning Board does not approve or deny county applications; the Board of Chosen Freeholders will be presented with a plan to build the amphitheater and will approve or deny it at a future meeting.
The freeholders voted on the budget on first reading at their first meeting of the year on Jan. 7; it passed unanimously.
The plans for the amphitheater, which is now being called a “conservation pavilion,” began when the Board of Chosen Freeholders passed two resolutions at a July 10, 2019, 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 the 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 and West Orange Township Council, which both passed resolutions asking the county to suspend expansion into the reservation. Residents from both towns, as well as residents from South Orange and Millburn, have been outspoken in opposition to the project. A petition opposing the project, started by Our Green West Orange in July, has 10,460 signatures as of Jan. 9.
“The zoo is a thriving institution, accredited by three different accrediting bodies,” Daniel Salvante, the Essex County director of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs, said at the meeting. “We are proud of the many improvements that have been made in the system. At the core of the Turtle Back Zoo’s mission is education. In 2019, the zoo serviced over 100,000 students and over 60,000 students in summer camps. These students represented all 22 municipalities in the county.”
Michael Piga, the landscape architect who designed the amphitheater, testified at the meeting that the theater would take 1.5 acres out of the South Mountain Reservation on the northeast side of the penguin pavilion, and would use a lot of native landscaping to keep to the theme of the area.
“It’s for about 500 guests, and there will be a stage structure and a control booth at the back,” Piga said. “We’ll have a north wing, a south wing and animal habitats.”
Included in the amphitheater area would be a building for animal habitats, an animal run, a stone driveway and back access to the building for staff members. The seats would be raised benches facing the stage. There would be skylights and outdoor access in the animal habitats.
“The majority of this will be stone, stucco and have a canopy,” Piga said.
An estimated 135 trees would be removed from the site to build the theater; Piga said they would be replaced elsewhere in the reservation by a 2-to-1 ratio.
Dennis Percher, the chairman of the South Mountain Conservancy and a Maplewood resident, pointed out at the meeting that the replacement trees would be smaller than the trees that are removed, leading to a recommendation from West Orange Planning Board Chairman Ron Weston that the county increase the tree-replenishment ratio.
Essex County Deputy Director of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Kate Hartwyck also testified at the meeting, explaining the zoo’s intentions for the theater. She said the classroom space is limited to about 30 students per room, while the amphitheater would hold about 500 people.
“The pavilion will allow us to reach a much larger student population,” Hartwyck said. “It’s designed in the genre of the amphitheater, which is a standard across zoos across the country. In that capacity, amphitheaters are used to highlight conservation to those students.”
Several county residents asked if the theater would increase the number of visitors to the zoo, leading to increased traffic on Northfield Avenue and increased noise and light pollution. Hartwyck said student visitors are capped at 1,500 to 1,700 per day. The amphitheater would be open during weekend hours as well, but she added that zoo staff does not expect the theater to increase the number of visitors. Hartwyck also explained why the site of the current, smaller amphitheater cannot be renovated.
“It is surrounded by other buildings that would have to be destroyed,” she said. “And we can’t accommodate this number of students around it.”
According to Turtle Back Zoo Director Mike Kerr, only small animals — raptors, porcupines, box turtles, snakes — would be brought onto the stage. The animals have daily welfare checks, and Kerr said the same process would be followed for the animals that are included in programming at the theater.
The vast majority of the audience at the Planning Board meeting opposed the project, and several spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. Harvey Grossman, the Planning Board’s public advocate, said the zoo should not be expanded further.
“I think it’s abundantly clear that expansion to the zoo is dreadful,” he said. “But I’ve been before the South Orange Board of Trustees and in touch with Maplewood and Millburn, and I understand there is a petition with over 10,000 signatures opposing this. There should be no more expansion of the zoo. It is not in the public interest.”
Sheila Baker Gujral, the cochairwoman of the Essex County Environmental Commission, said the county should consider a smaller facility to improve its educational programs.
“I agree this is a great facility for education, but that should include good stewardship as well,” Gujral said at the meeting. “When I was applying for colleges, I was looking for something smaller, where I could have a more hands-on experience. All we need to do is turn on the TV or read the paper to see the climate crisis we’re in. It’s not all about us, it’s about the flora and fauna and the whole ecosystem.”
Two Maplewood students — sisters Margaret and Kate McManus, who are 12 and 10 years old respectively — were among the young people who spoke at the meeting. Both asked that the theater not be built, especially in light of trees being removed.
“Tearing down part of the South Mountain Reservation to build an amphitheater for 500 noisy people is unethical,” Margaret said at the meeting. “The amphitheater is forcing other animals to be on it when they might not love it,” she added, saying that the zoo has already accomplished its mission of education without the amphitheater.
Kate pointed out the climate crisis, as did many other residents.
“Raccoons, birds and squirrels could lose their homes because the zoo decided to put in a circuslike structure,” she said at the meeting. “Cutting down trees is destroying the environment. Would you like more wildfires and frequent periods of droughts? Because that is what we are headed to.”
The Maplewood Township Committee discussed the project at its Jan. 7 meeting, which was led by Committeewoman Nancy Adams, who has been outspoken in her opposition to the development. She said she has spoken with Freeholder President Brendan Gill, who has questions for the county administration that have yet to be answered.
“He had a capital projects meeting with the administration of the county and they are committed to doing an open public meeting before the freeholders hold a final vote,” Adams said at the Maplewood TC meeting, pointing out that the county has said the project would cost $8 million. “Four million of that is from the state and $4 million would be coming from the county budget.”
The county will hold a public meeting to discuss the proposed amphitheater on Tuesday, Jan. 21, at 7 p.m. at the Essex County Police Academy, 250 Grove Ave. in Cedar Grove.
Adams said she and Gill discussed many of the same issues the public has brought up in meetings, namely the carving into the reservation to build the theater.
“I think this is something that is desired by the executive, frankly, who is not accustomed to getting pushback on much that’s happened at the Turtle Back Zoo,” she said. “I’ve reviewed the master plan that was submitted to us at the end of last year. After careful consideration of it and emails from the county, I’m convinced that expanding the zoo’s footprint by 1.5 acres just for this project into the reservation and the removal of 135 trees is not necessary to improve the education facilities that the county is saying this will do.”
Adams, like others at the West Orange Planning Board meeting the following night, said the existing facilities should be considered for upgrade.
“The Planning Board doesn’t have much power over the county, obviously, to alter this plan and definitely no power to stop it, so I think it’s important for us as governing bodies to weigh in on behalf of our constituents,” she said.
Adams also pointed out that the money allocated for the project could be used for public safety improvements around the county and improvements to the reservation itself. Committeeman Greg Lembrich agreed.
“State money is our money too,” he said at the Maplewood TC meeting. “State money is not free money. That’s money that could otherwise be going to a number of our projects, including funding our schools and other important places state aid can go in our community. There’s a lot of other things we can spend state and county money on.”
Committeeman Vic DeLuca, on the other hand, said he’s not convinced the theater should not be built.
“I’m not convinced yet that this is the wrong way to go at the zoo,” he said at the Maplewood TC meeting. “When I was in the Ironbound I knew kids who never saw anything green or any animals other than rats and mice, and going up there was quite an experience for them. I don’t want to discount that that zoo serves a critical piece of the education of kids who don’t have this kind of experience and don’t have the disposable income to go out and get that kind of experience.”
DeLuca added that he thinks there should be more transparency surrounding the project, and the county should not move forward until they have a public meeting discussing the zoo’s master plan and where the theater fits into it.
Elizabeth Redwine, a West Orange resident who lives near the zoo, said the reservation is what residents in the surrounding towns want rather than a bigger zoo.
“I do think that at a certain point, we need to decide when a facility reaches capacity,” she said at the Planning Board meeting. “Is there a point at which the zoo will no longer expand? At what point will the woods no longer be destroyed to expand the zoo? There are many animals that live in those woods, and their habitat will be taken away.”
Vicki Parker, a docent at the zoo, made the argument at the meeting that the theater would help the zoo teach visitors about how climate change is affecting those animals.
“At no time in the history of zoos has it been more important to raise the issue of conservation,” Parker said at the Planning Board meeting. “The zoo serves the need of some population that would never get to see some animals other than a squirrel or a rat. We serve an important purpose, and the people who say otherwise are being a little farsighted. The pavilion will be a shining light in West Orange and in future generations in our society.”
In addition to raising the tree-planting ratio, the Planning Board recommended the county add 1.5 acres back the reservation to make up for the lost land, build a rain garden for stormwater runoff and do a study for how stormwater will affect the area. The board also recommended the roof of the canopy be built with green materials and the county have a public meeting about the zoo’s master plan before work on the project commences.