CEDAR GROVE, NJ — Essex County officials held a public meeting on Jan. 21 about the proposed “conservation pavilion,” a 500-seat amphitheater to be built on the South Mountain Reservation northeast of the penguin pavilion at the Turtle Back Zoo. The meeting, held at the Essex County Police Academy in Cedar Grove, saw more than 40 people speak about the project during public comment; there were many others in attendance. The vast majority was in opposition.
The plans for the amphitheater 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 Maplewood Township Committee and West Orange Township Council 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 11,067 signatures as of Jan. 27.
Kate Hartwyck, the deputy director of the Essex County Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs, said at the meeting that changes have been made to the plan in light of the West Orange Planning Board’s recommendations at a courtesy hearing on Jan. 8. The original plan was to remove 135 trees on 1.5 acres of land and replace them with a 2-to-1 ratio; after the Planning Board recommended more trees be replanted, the county doubled the ratio, making the replacement rate 4 to 1.
“The board also suggested we incorporate a rain garden,” Hartwyk said. “Our team will incorporate this into our curriculum in 2021.”
Other changes that came out of the planning board hearing include a noise level study during zoo hours to be conducted by Essex County Health Officer Maya Lordo and a lighting study to be conducted by a lighting expert, to determine how added light would affect the neighborhoods surrounding the zoo.
Landscape architect Michael Piga, of French & Parrello Associates, repeated the presentation he gave at the planning board hearing about the amphitheater plan. In the plan, a stage structure and a control booth would face a 500-person seating area built out of raised benches, along with a building for animal habitats and an animal run. There would be skylights and outdoor access in the animal habitats. According to Piga, in keeping with the theme of the area, native landscaping would be used on the site.
Lorrie Sciabarasi, an architect from Comito Associates, talked at the meeting about the materials that would be used to build the structures.
“We’re going to use similar materials to the other exhibits, and we’re going to use green materials as well,” she said. “Over 50 percent of the cultured stone is made up of recycled content. Stucco is a green product that helps reduce rot. We’ll be designing a white roof that reflects more sun off the plane of the roof, which helps reduce the energy used in the building because it traps more heat.”
Many docents from the zoo attended the meeting to voice their support for the project. Some, like Jim McGrath, spoke during the public comment portion.
“You’ll see anywhere from 30 to 40 to 50 school buses in the lot,” he said about the number of schoolchildren at the zoo during the peak season of the year. “Animals will keep their attention pretty quick. You’re going to be able to bring out these animals and actually educate these students about what these animals are and how we can help them in the wildlife around the world. If we can get 500 students to sit still for 30 minutes and concentrate on it, it’s a big plus. If the animal is not there, they’re going to not engage and ask questions.”
Turtle Back Zoo Director Mike Kerr said at the planning board hearing that small animals would be featured in the theater, such as raptors, porcupines, box turtles and snakes. He said the same thing at the Jan. 21 meeting, calling them “ambassador animals.”
“The new conservation pavilion provides educational messaging for up to 1,500 people per day,” Kerr said. “While this is a unique structure for the zoo, this is common across many other zoos. Only 25 percent of zoo guests engage with the educator. Ambassador animals are an important tool that convey messages of conservation. The Turtle Back Zoo is excited to embark on this project that will provide new interactive learning activities for guests of all ages.”
Many residents pointed out that their issue is not with the zoo itself, but with the removal of space from the reservation. Maplewood resident and South Mountain Conservancy Board Member Richard Inserro said as much in his comments at the meeting.
“In our view, the core issue is not the zoo itself, but how best to manage the overwhelming success of all the attractions situated near the zoo and the impact to the reservation and surrounding community,” Inserro said, asking about the zoo’s master plan and the possibility of more growth in the future. “The master plan comments about ‘the zoo moving into the top tiers of zoos nationally.’ The San Diego Zoo is over 100 acres. The Bronx Zoo is 265 acres. We would like to understand what are the limits, if any, of zoo expansion. Viewing all these changes collectively, in our view, this is too much expansion without further study of the community impact and how to mitigate harmful effects on the reservation.”
According to the zoo’s 2019 master plan, the zoo currently sits on 32 acres.
Eli Goldstein, an architect and South Orange resident, raised concerns about the building materials of the project.
“My concerns are that putting a white roof on it doesn’t make it an energy-efficient building,” he said at the meeting. “If the building had a vegetative roof there would be no need for a detention basin, therefore you could keep more of the trees and use the reservation itself to demonstrate wildlife and conservation to the students. I think more thought needs to go into the design, so that more of the character of the reservation is preserved.”
Loren Svetvilas, from West Orange, said cutting down trees to build the amphitheater is antithetical to the idea of the zoo’s mission of conservation.
“We’re losing native species and the animals that live there,” he said at the meeting, discussing the acre and a half of the reservation the project would take. “There has been no environmental impact study, which is ironic because this is a conservation project. The project goes against the work that the docents do. We are not against the zoo; we are against expanding the zoo when it affects the reservation. The zoo has 900,000 visitors a year. I can’t imagine more.”
Many of the comments from the public at the meeting were along the same lines. Phil Kirsch, a Millburn resident, said his family has had a membership at the zoo for decades.
“I think there’s a misconception that members of the zoo are for expansion, but we’re not,” Kirsch said. “I think the enemy is the inability to see limits. We’ve continued and continued and continued and lost sight of where it reaches a limit or passes a limit. I think that’s what’s happening now. The amphitheater is not the issue — the continued expansion is the issue.”
He argued that the detention basin that will retain water to send it to the reservoir from the runoff of the pavilion’s building will take up too much space that could otherwise be saved.
“The basin doesn’t make up for the natural moisture of the forest and the land,” Kirsch said. “It doesn’t take the place of the natural elements that were there in the first place and, frankly, do the best job. I think we need to look at a limit and see what we’re doing. We need to look at the natural beauty that we have and really can’t replace under any circumstances.”
Maplewood Committeewoman Nancy Adams was at the meeting as well, choosing to be absent from the Township Committee meeting being held at the same time. Adams has been outspoken in her opposition to the project; she wrote the resolution the Maplewood TC passed asking the county to suspend expansion.
“This administration’s improvements to our parks are very much appreciated,” she said at the meeting. “The Maplewood Township Committee’s resolution is not a criticism, but a concern. I urge the county freeholders to listen to those who elected you.”
Adams pointed out the problems that Maplewood has been dealing with as a result of development on the reservation, such as flooding and animals showing up in heavily populated neighborhoods.
“Stormwater is something we are already addressing in our municipal budgets,” she said. “Flooding is happening in Maplewood where it hasn’t before, and this will only exacerbate it. The condition of the reservation is really bad, and we’re about to spend $8 million on a new facility instead of taking care of the trees and all that exists. If this moves forward, the county should then halt expansion and replenish the reservation to its former beauty.”