WEST ORANGE, NJ — The Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders unanimously passed a resolution that authorized the county Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs to apply to the state for a $4 million grant for the proposed “conservation pavilion,” a 500-seat amphitheater to be built in the South Mountain Reservation northeast of the penguin pavilion at Turtle Back Zoo, at its Feb. 26 meeting. The project has an estimated cost of $8 million; the rest of the funding will come out of the Essex County capital budget.
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 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 votes of 7–0; Freeholder Romaine Graham was absent, and Freeholder Tyshammie Cooper abstained.
The Maplewood Township Committee and West Orange Township Council have 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, had 12,224 signatures as of March 2.
“We do not know when the project will again be before the board,” Freeholders Chief of Administrative Services Kathy Brown said in an email on March 2. “Per the county administrator, the project construction specifications are out for bid and the estimated presentation of a contract to the Board of Freeholders is sometime in March/April 2020. In the interim, the board is taking some of the concerns raised by members of the public, such as environmental impacts, under advisement and is working with the administration to ensure environmental obligations are met.”
County residents gathered at the zoo’s entrance on March 1 to protest the amphitheater. Members of the Coalition to Save the South Mountain Reservation, a local action group formed to oppose the development, organized the event, which featured both youth speakers and other local leaders.
“Make sure you attend those meetings,” Anthony Diaz, a West Orange resident and member of the Newark Water Coalition, said at the protest. “Make sure your voice is heard. This is literally across the street from where I live. I don’t want it and you don’t want it. It’s time the government listens to the future.”
Isabella Schubert and Sophia Mirto, high school students from Springfield, also attended the protest. Both are familiar with the zoo and the reservation, and don’t want to see trees knocked down.
“We run here,” Mirto said in an interview at the event. “So we’re here to let people know and express our opinion, peacefully of course.”
Loren Svetvilas, a West Orange resident and member of the Coalition to Save the South Mountain Reservation, said the amphitheater would be better suited for a larger zoo in a larger city.
“This is animal entertainment and is better suited for Orlando, San Diego or Columbus, not a zoo that is already too big,” Svetvilas said at the protest. “This amphitheater project is not conservation education, it is conservation profiteering.”
Concerns regarding climate change were brought up often during the event. Virginia Lamb, a Maplewood resident, said the destruction of the forest will exacerbate an already huge problem.
“If our forest suffers, we suffer,” Lamb said. “Don’t let the county think it’s just about the trees. It’s the whole system. The forest is saving our lives. It is holding back the dam of greenhouse gases. It provides a natural environment and a break from our daily lives. We don’t need more entertainment. We need our forest.”
Maplewood Committeewoman Nancy Adams has been outspoken in her opposition to the project and spoke at the protest. She encouraged county residents to use the upcoming primary election as an opportunity to challenge the freeholders who are up for reelection this year.
“They clearly aren’t listening to you and they clearly don’t care,” Adams said. “We need to do better. It’s not hard to do better. It’s actually more work they’re doing and more money they’re spending.”
Columbia High School senior Jordan Muhammad was one of the youth speakers at the protest, and she said the county should be adding more trees to the reservation rather than cutting them down to make room for the amphitheater.
“Planting millions of trees across the world is a quick solution to the climate crisis,” Muhammad said at the protest. “Then why are we cutting them down? If the Essex County executive really cared, he would invest in creating more trails. Every tree and every acre counts. Our government is supposed to be a body meant to protect us and not their own pockets.”
Rhianna Giuliano, a sixth grader at Edison Middle School, lives across the street from the zoo. She and her mother often take walks in the reservation, and Giuliano wants to see the land preserved.
“I don’t really agree with it because it’s already so big,” she said in an interview at the protest. “It’s one of the biggest zoos in New Jersey.”
Armed with signs depicting trees and artwork encouraging the freeholders and Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. to halt the plans for the amphitheater, residents made suggestions for other ways to educate students who visit the zoo.
“I taught environmental science and gardening at Seth Boyden Elementary School for 10 years,” Maplewood resident Jane Conrad said in an interview at the event. “The right way to do environmental education is hands-on. Five hundred people is an entire elementary school population.”
Conrad suggested that, instead of the amphitheater, the zoo expand its docent program into the reservation’s land to bring visitors into the forest and teach them about the environment and the native species that can be found there.
“Let them be part of a program to help restore it,” she said. “They can see where they’ll be helping. That would be true conservation, not a show. Why waste the day to see animals in such a way, when you can see them in the forest?”
In addition, Conrad said the docents and zoo staff could test water in the reservation, observe wildlife over time and maintain the native plants that are found there.
“If we don’t fix it, it’s going to cause downhill flooding,” she said. “The zoo should partner with the conservancy.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to correct an error. Initially the story said the remainder of funding, beyond the grant for which the county has applied, will come from the Essex County Recreation and Open Space Trust Fund. In fact, the remainder of funding will come from the Essex County capital budget.