County sees vast opposition to potential amphitheater

ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — The Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders passed two resolutions at its July 10 meeting that approved the allocation of $600,000 from the Recreation and Open Space Trust Fund to determine the feasibility of building an 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 and Parrello Associates to do a feasibility study. Both resolutions passed with a vote of 7-0; Freeholder Romaine Graham was absent, and Freeholder Tyshammie Cooper abstained.

Many surrounding towns in Essex County are speaking out against the possibility of the amphitheater, saying that development of the South Mountain Reservation has gone too far and the area is turning into an entertainment complex. The zoo is part of an area called the Essex County South Mountain Recreation Complex, and residents and township officials in West Orange, South Orange and Maplewood have been discussing the issue in the wake of the resolutions passing.

In a July 18 email, freeholder President Brendan Gill clarified that the resolutions passed do not authorize the county to build the amphitheater, for which there is currently no site.

“The resolutions passed by the board were not authorizations to build the amphitheater. As stated previously, they are the first step in determining everything needed to complete this particular project should the county decide to move forward,” Gill said. “Secondly, if the county administration did decide to move forward, they would have to come before the board and have further funding approved before the start of any construction process.”

Gill said he has not yet decided whether he is in favor of building the amphitheater. In the email, he said the board will work with the administration to make sure the process is as transparent as possible and the details of the project would be presented to the board first.

“I have spoken with members of the administration, members of the Open Space Trust Fund, members of local municipal agencies and many concerned citizens. As this process moves forward, all sides will be heard and given an opportunity to voice their concerns,” Gill said. “I am still gathering information on all aspects of the proposed amphitheater. The yet-to-be-determined location of the amphitheater, the cost of completing the project, the impact on the neighboring communities and the encroachment upon the open space of the surrounding area are all factors that I will consider when determining my position.”

In a phone interview on July 18, board spokesman Kyalo Mulumba clarified that there is no site or design plan for the amphitheater yet.

“The vote wasn’t to build an amphitheater, the vote was to allocate money to see if it’s feasible,” Mulumba said. “They would have to go before the board again with a plan. None of that detail has been set.”

Essex County Public Information Director Anthony Puglisi attended the July 16 West Orange Township Council meeting to speak about the project; he reiterated that the approved resolutions do not mean the amphitheater will be built and said the money in the trust fund is meant for more than open space.

“The uses of the funds are of course open space, park maintenance and historic preservation,” Puglisi said at the meeting. “It’s not strictly open space preservation.”

Puglisi also said Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. and the administration want to build a 2,000-seat amphitheater to enhance the zoo’s educational programming.

“The reason for the amphitheater proposal is to strengthen our educational programming,” Puglisi said, adding that the zoo in accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Zoo and Aquarium Association and the American Humane Society. “They stress conservation and education. In our current amphitheater, people sit alongside a bank, so there’s no real traditional seating and we estimate that only about 200 visitors would be able to sit around that amphitheater at a time.”

County residents, in West Orange especially, have concerns about the traffic on Northfield Avenue that the proposed amphitheater could exacerbate. In his comments at the meeting, Puglisi said the parking deck currently under construction will recirculate traffic away from the county road and reduce the number of cars on the street.

“As you know, these plans do go before the Planning Board,” Puglisi told the council, adding that the West Orange Planning Board will be able to make suggestions if the plan to build the amphitheater does move forward. “The Planning Board does make recommendations, and we incorporate those recommendations into our plan. The municipality does have a say in how those improvements move forward.”

At the meeting, several West Orange residents asked the council to discourage the county from moving forward with the amphitheater project. Harvey Grossman, the West Orange Planning Board’s public advocate, spoke at length in opposition.

“It will have a detrimental effect on the town,” Grossman said. “It’s going to further exacerbate the traffic on Northfield Avenue because it’s another attraction. It’s transforming the zoo into an amusement park. It’s going to have an adverse effect on the St. Cloud section of town with more noise and more disturbance. It will have a detrimental effect on our town and the freeholders simply do not care.”

Sally Malanga, another West Orange resident, said at the meeting that she would rather see the county spend the money they allocated for the project on conservation of the reservation.

“They are spending millions of dollars on the zoo as an entertainment complex instead of spending it on open space acquisitions,” Malanga said. “The zoo, if we allow it, will eat West Orange. I think that it’s fine the way it is; they don’t need an amphitheater. Please let the genie back in the bottle and don’t let the zoo eat West Orange.”

Though the West Orange Planning Board hears the plans for new projects and approves or denies them from moving forward, West Orange resident Joyce Rudin said West Orange Township Council members should be more involved in the process with the freeholders and county administration.

“We need to put our foot down,” Rudin said. “We need to slow this down and we need to have a say in what goes on in development in our local zoo. We should be encouraging the preservation of open space. This is using county money, again, for hardscaping. Enough, enough, enough.”

West Orange resident Gary Van Wyck said there should be limits on what can be built at the zoo and around the South Mountain Reservation, because the township cannot handle the additional construction.

“There have got to be some limits on what we can actually handle in this space,” he said. “I think one of the main problems is traffic. Can we really afford to have more attractions without a proper study of the capacity, of the traffic capacity and the environmental impact?”

A petition opposing the amphitheater that was started by members of Our Green West Orange had more than 8,000 signatures as of press time. A petition in support of the project was started by the docents of the Turtle Back Zoo, and currently has slightly more than 1,200 signatures. Loren Svetvilas, a West Orange resident and member of Our Green West Orange, said at the meeting that the organization would support a council resolution opposing the amphitheater, as Maplewood and South Orange officials have discussed.

“It’s really impacting our community, not just environmentally but health- and safety-wise as well,” Svetvilas said. “It’s not just a money thing, it’s a space thing and a traffic thing.”

In their responses to the comments, the council did not discuss a formal resolution, but did express concerns about the project moving forward. Councilwoman Michelle Casalino mentioned the potential traffic among other issues.

“I hope you’re mindful of the acoustics and the sound, which has been a concern with the neighbors, and how the sound will travel,” she said at the meeting. “I also want to know more about the time it will be used, is it going to go after 6 p.m.? There’s a lot of questions.”

Councilwoman Susan McCartney said she appreciated hearing that the resolutions the freeholders had approved would not move the project forward, saying this was not made clear and she had not seen anything scheduled on the West Orange Planning Board’s agenda.

“It just sounded like this was steamrolling ahead without any say whatsoever,” McCartney said.

Councilwoman Cindy Matute-Brown said she is willing to have a conversation about the project and further zoo development with the county in her comments at the meeting.

“There are a lot of questions to have answered,” Matute-Brown said. “I do feel that the county is at least willing to have that dialogue. I am really reluctant and hesitant with any more development at the zoo, but I want to withhold my judgment until I have all of the facts. It is a discussion we should have, along with our neighboring communities to see where they are with this.”

Maplewood is drafting a resolution similar to what Svetvilas proposed to the West Orange Township Council. Maplewood Township Committeewoman Nancy Adams said in a July 22 phone interview that the committee will consider the resolution at its Aug. 6 meeting. She strongly opposes the project, saying that the amphitheater will eat away more space at the reservation, which should be preserved.

“We have this reservation that’s meant to be free open space, and the more we encroach on it, which has been happening more and more, the more we lose,” Adams said. “We’re taking away the natural habitat to animals and then wondering why they’re getting into our neighborhoods.”

She also discussed climate change and the effect the theater could have on exacerbating it, saying that paving and building could create flooding issues.

“We already have a problem with stormwater runoff, and then we’re going to pave even more and have flooding,” Adams said. “We don’t need an education space. Take me to the natural habitat to learn.”

Adams’ comments in the interview echoed her comments at the July 16 Maplewood Township Committee meeting, where she said the county should utilize the resources it already has for education instead of building something new. Committeeman Greg Lembrich, who said at the meeting that he has been in favor of zoo expansion in the past, agreed with Adams.

“In the past I’ve felt like the county was doing the right thing, and I really like the progress the zoo has made,” Lembrich said. “I think at this point, it’s going too far. We already have such an outstanding zoo and it’s one of the things our county already does really well, but I think our county has other gems or potential gems where this money could be better spent.”

The lack of open space is a subject often discussed in Essex County, and Lembrich added to the conversation at the meeting, saying that, in an already densely populated area, parkland should not be removed.

“The idea that we would take away more from what we have, with all of the things that our area needs to spend money on and devote our resources to, this is just a bridge that’s too far for me,” he said. “If we’re not going to do the project, we shouldn’t spend money on the plans.”

Committeeman Dean Dafis and Deputy Mayor Frank McGehee agreed with Adams and Lembrich, and Dafis said the county should reconsider the amphitheater idea in light of public opposition to it.

Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca said that he wanted to make sure the language in the resolution is specific about determining what development at the zoo would mean, saying that he wouldn’t be comfortable saying the township does not support any development all. But DeLuca said he agrees with his colleagues about the amphitheater project.

“I’m a little concerned about saying ‘no development’ and more interested in saying ‘let’s have a plan, let’s not spend money at this point, let’s vet these projects,’” he said. “If we’re going to say something we ought to say that there needs to be more transparency and there needs to be a brake put on the movement of these funds. There needs to be a plan for how we’re going to make the reservation the best it can be.”

The South Orange Village Board of Trustees, which met July 22 after press time, was slated to discuss the amphitheater project as well. Village President Sheena Collum posted information about the plan on Facebook on July 20, asking for community input. She received 212 comments, almost all of which were against the plan. Community input was taken at the Maplewood Township Committee meeting as well.

“Once this natural area is developed, it can never be undeveloped,” Virginia Falconer said at the Maplewood meeting. “Its value as a natural space is really underappreciated and the woods are in terrible condition because they’re not really managed as an urban forest. If they were properly managed, they’d serve a great role for groundwater storage, carbon recharging and water filtration. The focus should instead be on managing the current forest to optimize its potential for optimal benefit as well as educational benefit. I don’t not support the zoo, I just think enough is enough.”

South Mountain Conservancy Chairman Dennis Percher, a Maplewood resident, spoke to the committee at the meeting as well. He expressed support for the zoo, but said the use of open space money is off balance, and the reservation does not get its fair share. Building an amphitheater, he said, will make the problem worse.

“The balance is off, so until we have a master plan and understand the balance in terms of investment, I think a type of declaration is worth it, showing that it’s out of control and not responsive to people’s needs,” Percher said.

Maplewood Green Team Chairwoman Tracy Woods is working on the draft of the resolution with Adams, and in her comments at the meeting said that development at the zoo complex and the reservation should end.

“I’ve watched as year after year, bit by bit, little pieces were nibbled off and it always felt like it wasn’t that much, just a little more, and now it’s got to stop,” Woods, who is also a member of the SMC, said. “The reservation is the jewel of Essex County, not the Turtle Back Zoo complex. The expense that’s being put into it isn’t what the community wants. The idea of cutting down more and more of the forest to put up amusement park-type items just feels like a wrong priority, especially when most Essex County residents agree that the amusement we want is the forest.”