West Orange students organize rally to demand town climate action now

WEST ORANGE, NJ — West Orange students will rally for rapid environmental action on Sunday, Feb. 13, at noon outside West Orange Town Hall, 66 Main St., with a rain/snow date of Feb. 20.

Rockslides and flooding after Tropical Storm Ida permanently displaced 45 families living at the Ron Jolyn Apartments on 275 Northfield Ave. in West Orange. Some environmentalists say the removal of approximately 1,000 trees on a ridgeline above the apartment complex may be partially responsible for the rockslide. The trees were removed to build an athletic complex for Seton Hall Prep, with approval from the West Orange Zoning Board. 

“It is time for West Orange officials to face reality,” said Daniel Shapiro, a Golda Och Academy student and a member of the N.J. Student Sustainability Coalition, a statewide organization of students working for environmental action. “The climate crisis is threatening us. Some of our friends have literally lost their homes. All we see is more development and destruction of our local environment. This needs to change, now, full stop.”

According to the rally’s teenage organizers, this issue is personal for them, as West Orange is a mountain town with steep slopes and a flood-prone valley. Some West Orange residents have raised concerns that overdevelopment is causing mountain erosion, while, at the same time, existing environmental ordinances, such as protecting all forests and not building on ridgelines, are not being enforced.

“I attended the first commission meeting after Hurricane Ida, and the effects of the storm were discussed, but the word ‘climate change’ was not said once,” says Svanfridur Mura, a student at Newark Academy, a Climate Reality Project leader and another member of the N.J. Student Sustainability Coalition. “Even as they talked about how to deal with climate change, saying the word was too much for the commission.”

Students are rallying to demand that the West Orange Township Council and Mayor Robert D. Parisi enact comprehensive legislation to: prevent any future environmental negligence, such as allegedly occurred at the Ron Jolyn Apartments; preserve the Mt. Pleasant forest and the Hecker Carriage House; create a stronger tree ordinance, and ban the sale and planting of invasive species; ban any further construction on steep slopes or ridgelines; ban gas-powered blowers and trimmers; demand the county define the boundaries of the Turtle Back Zoo and object to any further development in South Mountain Reservation; use the Open Space Trust Fund for land preservation; cut down on municipal carbon emissions, including through measures such as electrifying town vehicles, improving the energy efficiency of municipal buildings and finding clean energy alternatives to current energy sources; join a clean energy aggregation program to reduce residential carbon emissions; promote a walkable, bikeable town; promote electric vehicle usage by building electric charging stations; establish a comprehensive and aggressive townwide plan to reduce carbon emissions and improve climate resilience to protect residents; and end permits for new construction heated by fossil fuels and enforce energy efficiency among new developments.