County seeks Green Acres funding for zoo project, park renovation

The Essex County commissioners held a public hearing on an application for Green Acres funding for Weequahic Park and the Turtle Back Zoo on July 7.

ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — The Essex County Board of County Commissioners held a public hearing for a grant application to New Jersey Green Acres at its July 7 meeting for the Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange, in addition to other improvements at Weequahic Park in Newark. The county is asking for $2.5 million in grant funding to cover part of the total $5.1 million cost of the projects. The project in Newark will renovate the Divident Hill Pavilion and add lighting, fencing and landscaping to the area. At the zoo, the grant would cover the Amazing Asia exhibit, which would replace the current exhibit of the same name. According to TBZ Director Jilian Fazio, the exhibit would not expand outside the current boundaries of the zoo.

“The species included are the clouded leopard, red panda, hornbill and Vietnamese turtle,” Fazio said at the meeting. “The new habitat will allow for both reproductive and geriatric management of all these species, in order to help support species survival program efforts, and include viewing areas for our guests to learn and to educate them about the conservation of these animals.”

The exhibit will include a training area and a climate-controlled indoor area that will be 280 square feet. Three red panda dens, four clouded leopard dens and one flexible den will be inside. The outdoor space will be 1,179 square feet and will include separate areas for each species.

West Orange resident Jerome Eben said he is concerned about the zoo project in terms of traffic, pollution and removing trees to build the new exhibit.

“Most of the trees in the Turtle Back area are 150 or more years old; many of them are 80 to 90 feet tall,” Eben said at the meeting, also saying that the county master plan has not yet been approved. “Expanding the Turtle Back Zoo without a master plan is like expanding any community or township without a master plan, and, as you know, all of the cities in Essex County must have a master plan.”

Maplewood resident Virginia Falconer said she supports upgrading Weequahic Park but questioned the spending necessary to renovate the Asia exhibit at the zoo.

“I’m glad to hear from the director that the new exhibit is within the existing footprint of the zoo,” Falconer said at the meeting. “However, there is no firm boundary to the zoo. Boundary fencing continually creeps out into the adjoining South Mountain Reservation, destroying old-growth forest. It’s an inexorable march extending out, trees dying and then claiming that land as part of the zoo.”

She encouraged the commissioners to set hard boundaries for the zoo, so there is a perimeter beyond which no future projects could expand.

“The zoo and the complex are certainly big enough, and they have enough resources devoted to them,” Falconer said. “The reservation is a really vital natural resource in our densely developed and populated urban county, and I hope the commissioners realize that. I’d like you to consider a more balanced approach to our recreation needs in Essex County.”

The members of the Sierra Club’s Gateway Group also oppose expanding the zoo outside of its current footprint, as President Bill Beren said at the meeting. The Montclair resident said that the county should be more transparent about planning for the zoo, as many residents didn’t know about the public hearing until it was on the meeting agenda.

“I do want to emphasize again that there’s a major need for a master plan that the public has the chance to look at,” Beren said. “The fact that this was brought up without any prior notice, that there was no definition given to the public as to what this expansion would entail, speaks to the need for more robust, more transparent public outreach on the part of the zoo, the county and the commissioners.”

Maplewood Committeewoman Nancy Adams wrote an email to the commissioners to be read during the public comment portion of the meeting, asking the county not to fund the zoo exhibit.

“With everything that has just come out recently about the urgency of climate change, now is the time to invest in natural resources, not make more attractions,” Adams wrote. “As an elected official, I beg you to listen to your constituents and the scientists, and leave what little natural space there is left in New Jersey alone.”

Essex County parks contractor Josh Zatz again confirmed after public comment at the meeting that the new exhibit will not be expanding outside of the zoo’s current footprint.

“We’ve been pretty adamant about staying within the zoo boundaries, and we certainly will continue with this project,” he said. “This public hearing is required in order to submit the application. We are still in the process of designing the Asian exhibit. We hope to have it completed by the end of the month and then out for bid at the end of the month. This is just to apply for these funds. If we are fortunate enough to be awarded these funds, we will come back to the board and will be able to provide additional information at that time.”