Amphitheater project halted in wake of COVID

ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — Before the COVID-19 pandemic stopped large gatherings from happening, Essex County residents spent months protesting a proposed 500-seat amphitheater to be built in the South Mountain Reservation northeast of the penguin pavilion at Turtle Back Zoo. As recently as March, residents held events at the entrance to the zoo, asking the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders and County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. to suspend the project, after a Feb. 26 resolution passed by the freeholders 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.” Now, planning for the $8 million project has effectively ended in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, as the county did not award a construction contract by the May 13 deadline and has no plans to rebid. The rest of the funding was to come out of the Essex County capital budget.

In an email statement on May 24, DiVincenzo said the pandemic is the reason the county is not moving forward with the amphitheater, though he did say the project is only on hold.

“During the last five months, we have been focused on planning for and responding to the pandemic,” DiVincenzo said. “Essex County has been particularly hard hit, having the most COVID-related deaths and the third largest number of positive cases in the state. Planning for the Turtle Back Zoo amphitheater has not been a priority, and the project has been put on hold.”

On May 4, the Essex County Environmental Commission held a virtual meeting in which the members discussed a resolution asking the county to stop the project.

“This proposed project would involve the removal of 1.5 acres of land from the South Mountain Reservation, and this proposed project would involve the deforestation of much of that land,” the resolution reads. “This proposed project would convert open land area, with attendant soil, plants and other means of minimizing stormwater runoff to developed land area. This proposed project would include and increase vehicle traffic and parking in the zoo area.”

The commission’s resolution also cites stormwater runoff, removing animal habitats on the reservation and the large amount of money being spent on the project as reasons for their recommendation; these were all concerns that members of the public have been citing over the last several months about the amphitheater. It also addresses the pandemic, saying that large gatherings will not be permitted anyway.

“Absent dropping the project altogether, we recommend that an Environmental Impact Study be performed by an accredited, independent, licensed professional firm prior to such referendum, with said study being made conspicuously available to the citizens of Essex County in general,” the resolution reads. “Absent a finding from said study that the proposed project will have a net neutral environmental impact on the water, air, lighting, groundwater pollution, surface pollution, carbon absorption, open space area and other related impacts, the proposed project (should) be abandoned.”

This is not the first resolution that has been submitted to the county asking for the amphitheater project to be canceled. The Maplewood Township Committee passed a resolution in August 2019, followed by the West Orange Township Council in September. The Millburn Environmental Commission and South Orange Environmental Commission both did the same in February, as did the Newark Environmental Commission on March 4.